Monday, 16 February 2015

North Buttress, Glas Tholl

The view to the An Teallach ridge from Glas Tholl.

Days on An Teallach always seem to deliver. Of everything that I love about climbing in the NW Highlands, I think it is the solitude amongst incredible scenery that attracts me the most. 

Despite being a recluse by nature, I do actually really like the atmosphere on Ben Nevis or in Coire an-t Sneachda during the busy season. When the climbing conditions are good there is a great sense of excitement in the air, and I always see lots of friends and familiar faces. The Ben has been in amazing condition for weeks, and if I'd gone there yesterday I'd have had a long list of classics in great nick to choose from.

But I wanted a day in the North West. Despite two attempts, I'd not actually managed to climb anything yet in my new nearest mountain area. And to date my experience has been that is doesn't really matter what you climb in the North West, just being there is something to be treasured.

Glas Tholl.

The beautiful North-West. Liathach from Loch Clair on Saturday.

After very nearly being somewhere else I ended up walking up towards Glas Tholl on An Teallach. Nearly all the routes here are strong lines, and the corrie is a wild and very beautiful place. I simply headed towards the part of the crag that looked the most wintery, and ended up on the line of North Buttress (II).

It had been almost 2 years since I'd climbed such iron hard neve. I managed to find snow-ice on a lot of the routes I climbed last winter but most of it was a bit soft, but this stuff wasn't taking any prisoners. A fortnight of gentle freeze-thaw cycles had put the snow in bomb proof condition.

North Buttress takes a line central in the photo, finishing up the narrow gully left of the rounded central buttress.

Despite there being no difficulties, just sustained steep snow, it was definitely a place for concentration. The last time I'd climbed in this corrie it had been quite warm and I'd kicked steps easily in the snow up another route without any feeling of exposure.

Calm conditions in the corrie, brutal winds on the ridge.

I could hear the wind howling over the ridge above me. As I topped out I knew I was in for a bit of battle, and five minutes later I was fully knocked off my feet by the wind and the air was blown out of my lungs. Something hit me in the eye and blinded me for a few seconds, and I spent a minute or so behind a rock working out the safest way off the mountain.

In the next half an hour I struggled against some of the strongest gusts of winds I've ever experienced in the hills. Descending down verglassed slabby rocks wasn't optimal given the situation, but at least it reminded me to give all the points on my crampons a sharpen when I got home.

Out of harms way, I walked down through the quiet corrie and a golden eagle made a quick fly over Bidean a'Glas Thuill. I hadn't seen another soul all day, on a half term holiday sunday.


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Raeburn's Gully, Lochnagar

 A beautiful day on the classic Raeburn's Gully (II***), Lochnagar

A few years ago Alex and I had a memorable mid-May ascent of Number 2 Gully on Ben Nevis. It felt strange to be walking up towards a winter route whilst being followed up the path by the scent of flowers and fresh summer grass. The first midgies were making themselves known and the rock-climbing season was well underway in the glens.

It was one of my first gully routes and I think I'll always remember the feeling of coming up underneath the cornice, still massive despite it being the summer.  How easily would we be able to by-pass it? Conditions were perfect from a few cold nights and the gully was full of iron hard neve, but we topped out into warm sunshine with views of heat-haze shimmering over Lochaber.

I found my thoughts drifting to that day a few times yesterday morning. High pressure has arrived but so have warmer temperatures, and it felt every bit like a Spring dawn as I walked up towards Lochnagar. The first rays of sunshine felt like a warmth breath on my face, and Alpenglow spread over the legendary North-East corrie.

The superb North-East Corrie.

Central Buttress round to the Parallel Gullies.

But to my satisfaction the view that greeted me was a far more wintery one than I'd feared, the lochan still frozen solid and the cliffs still overwhelmingly snow-bound. I entered the corrie with an open mind, but hopeful the classic Raeburn's Gully would be in condition. It was one of the only 3 star grade II gullies left in Scotland that I'd never climbed.

A very fore-shortened view of the gully. The top half of the route is almost all out of view.

The easy lower slopes.

You are left guessing until the moment you are stood at the base of the route as it is hidden for the whole approach. It looked good. And based on the conditions over the last few weeks I was fairly confident the cornice wouldn't extend all the way round the top of the gully.

The route was banked out on steep snow apart from a single ice pitch. Although the snow was still freezing it wasn't the best consolidated, and I wasn't sure if I'd find hollow cruddy ice on the crux. A large snow mushroom/umbrella overhung the right hand side of the pitch so I knew I'd have to climb carefully avoid it.

The ice pitch, steeper than it looks. A nice snow-mushroom to avoid too.

Thankfully the ice pitch was in great condition with sticky ice and first-time placements. The snow mushroom forced me out on a bit of a tilt and overall the pitch felt more like low end grade III. It brought a grin to my face.

The gully above is a magnificent place hemmed in by amazing snow and rock architecture. And above a huge cornice overhung the route, a snowy monster waiting to drop once the thaw has Lochnagar in its grip. I could see that I'd be able to avoid it by a steep climb up left to exit the gully, but it was still an intimidating moment. I thought of that summer day on the Ben years ago and my first encounter with a cornice. I've soloed dozens of grade II gullies since then, but they can still be lonely places to be.

Afternoon sun hits the cornices above Raeburn's Gully. Glad I climbed the route early in the morning.

Stuic Buttress

Cornices above the Black Spout. The Left Branch is climbable just now, the right branch is heavily corniced.

The Cairngorms seem to have resisted the affects of the inversion a bit better than the West. Hopefully cold temperatures will arrive again soon.


Sunday, 8 February 2015

Alpine conditions on Bidean

 Winter perfection on Bidean nam Bian on Friday

Friday was an amazing day to be out climbing or hillwalking in Glencoe. No matter how many blue-sky winter days I see from the summit of Bidean, they are always immense. Plans A and B didn't work out so I found myself climbing vaguely the line of North Route (II) on Diamond Buttress. I wasn't really fussed what route I climbed as I knew the views would be the highlight, and I wasn't wrong.

The sunrise had lit up the Aonach Eagach with firery splendour and a cloud inversion was spread over Lochaber in the distance. The sky above was clear blue and the silence was unbroken save for the noise of other climbers across the corrie.

It had been almost 2 years since I'd last sat on the summit of Bidean. How could it have been that long? It felt like no time at all since I used to live in the glen and Bidean would be my most frequent haunt. 

First light hits the Aonach Eagach

A huge build up of snow in Bidean's NE corrie.

The North ridge of Bidean

Bidean nam Bian

Stob Coire Sgreamhach from Bidean's summit.

Diamond and Church Door Buttresses

Lost Valley Buttress

Thursday, 5 February 2015


A beautiful day in the Southern Highlands

Yesterday was the second time I've soloed Taxus (III***) on Beinn an Dothaidh, and if anything it was even more enjoyable this time around.

Grateful to find a track of footsteps to follow into the corrie, I was slightly discourage to somehow lose sight of it half way there and to find the approach up beneath West Gully was through deep soft snow. I knew Taxus had been climbed a few days before, but you'd never have known anyone else had been up that slope leading to it. Was I going to find Taxus full of snow shifted about by the wind?

First light on the Grey Corries

Taxus is the steep gully just left of centre, leading up to the highest point in the photo.

I remained slightly doubtful until I sank my axes into the first ice pitch and found it in good shape. There was one large-ish hole in the ice but it made no difference really, and there was a good move to get over a bulge on the left of the hole.

A totally silent morning in the corrie.

Nearly at the base of the route.

Pretty much the whole first half of the route was on generally great neve with occasionally crusty patches, and it was a pleasure to be moving fast on ice again. The ice step in the middle of the route was quite a lot steeper than the last time I did the route and a bit thinner too, but I was soon over it and into the upper basin.

The easy upper basin of Taxus.

I love this part of Taxus, where the confined snow basin opens up onto a narrow ridge and the final steep slopes lead to the top, with Rannoch Moor spreading out around you.

I'd been climbing in a deserted corrie and didn't see a single other person all day. It looks to be turning into a great season.

Conditions on the mixed routes looked excellent too.


Monday, 2 February 2015

Back to the Scottish winter

 Back to the beauty and the cold of Scottish winter climbing. A climber amongst mad ice scenery on The Croc, Beinn Udlaidh yesterday.

After weeks of moving-house related muddle and chaos, my yearning to make a return to the Scottish winter had reached boiling point. I felt bitter envy as a stable high pressure arrived the week we were moving, only for it to end the day I became free to climb.

I now live on The Black Isle north of Inverness with Nicole. The North-West Highlands, by far my favourite place to climb anywhere, is now my nearest mountain area and I can be in Torridon in an hour from home.

A visit to Liathach's corries a few days ago ended up being a false start, and January ended without me having climbed a single winter route. My last 5 winters have been periods of obsessive winter soloing, so to say this felt like an unusual situation would be an

Dawn light over the Southern Highlands. I've missed this!

Yesterday was the window of opportunity. It was the usual game after a big dump of snow - where could I go that wasn't going to be an endless wade through powder, or involve nearly dying on the roads driving there? As much as I was craving the wilds of Torridon, Skye or An Teallach, heading South instead would mean the best weather.

Glencoe on the drive back home.

Bidean nam Bian glowed at me through the dark as I drove through Glencoe, and even by the light of the moon I could see the huge amounts of fresh snow lying on the mountains. A 3am wake up alarm, a few close calls with red deer on Rannoch Moor, some skidding on the icy road down Glen felt like I'd never been away.
I was first into the corrie as planned. West Gully (III*) was a good memory from the 12/13 winter, when I soloed it in amazing condition before an 11am shift in the Clachaig. The crux was much thinner yesterday and more steep. There was water running behind the ice but swinging axes again felt amazing. The top half of the gully was banked out on snow, nothing like the fat blue ice which had been there two years ago, and very soon I was at the top admiring first light turning the hills pink.

West Gully (III*)

As I descended the top half of Central Gully (II) the corrie filled up with people all at once. I hate soloing with lots of other climbers around, so I happily spent the next hour on photography instead. Being back amongst it all was just the best feeling.

The first other climbers begin arriving.

A busy day on the ice.

I won't be able to climb anywhere near as often as I used to when I lived in Glencoe and the Cairngorms, but surely that just means I'll await the next time even more eagerly? The NW Highlands are waiting!