Sometimes you have to go east to find dry rock. With a long list of classic mountain rock climbs to do John and I went to Ballater in the search of a crag with some rock climbing that would be dry after the recent steady drizzle on the west coast. We walked in to Creag an Dubh Loch, a first for both of us, and found exactly what we were after. The crags on the west coast will take weeks to dry out proiperly but it has been much drier on the other side of the Cairngorms, as it often is, and we found the brilliant climbs here to be just about completely dry.
After dropping our bivi gear on the beach of the Dubh Loch we went to climb Cyclops, an eight pitch HVS climb with four stars. Not a bad way to get to know the crag! This climb is on the main slabs of the left hand side of the crag and has slabs, overlaps and cracks with sustained brilliant climbing all the way to the top. John and I swung pitches all the way and found the route well enough. One pitch through an overlap threw me for a moment or two. The way through seemed so ridiculous on first sight, I thought it would be much harder than the description states. However, it goes exactly as described and in a brilliant position.
We topped out in the early evening and wandered back down the gully to our beach bivi for chicken tikka for dinner. We settled down on the beach for a very comfortable night with no midges. It's an idyllic setting, like a beach paradise with huge crags of perfect rock right behind. There is no phone reception and virtually nobody else there at all so it feels pretty out there doing these huge climbs.
One problem is choosing what to climb from the many excellent lines available! For our second day we went for the Dubh Loch Monster. This seemed to take an uncompromisingly straight line up a line of crags from bottom to top of the biggest bit of crag. It "only" gets two stars but it is worth a few more in our opinion. The climbing is amazing, sustained, on excellent rock and it does just go straight up with minor sneaky ways around certain sections. The description of the last pitch did not seem to fit what was in front of us or the diagram so we just carried on straight up and this seemed to work!
Another stunning climb, another dinner on the beach (spaghetti bolognaise this time) and another night out in the wild. Unfortunately we got a bit of thick cloud over us during the night and we woke to a damp start with some more showers on the way. So, John and I went down to Ballater with a couple of fabulous climbs in the bag. In the afternoon, between showers and before the deluge of a thunderstorm later on, we climbed a couple of nice routes at the Pass of Ballater. This is a very handy crag right next to the road with some fun climbs. Well worth a visit. Also well worth a visit is the Ballater Hostel. If you are over that way, make sure you stay at the hostel for great facilities and a very warm welcome.
Eagle Ridge on Lochnagar is a super classic climb that dries well after rain. This is just what we were looking for after a deluge on Wednesday night. We walked in with the summit mist clearing away and found the coire full of the shrieks of nesting Peregrine Falcons (I think). Just as described the rock on Eagle Ridge dried very quickly so only the first pitch was a bit greasy and the rest was pretty much all dry. More brilliant climbing all the way to the top of this 200m classic got us to the summit of Lochnagar where the mist came in again and the rain came on as we got back to the glen. Perfect timing. So, four outstanding days of climbing on mountain crags after a period of pretty wet weather was an excellent result. Unfortunately the tumble off the mountain bike on the last day was not so good! It just goes to show, biking is a lot more hazardous than rock climbing!
We only had one dry day on the Summer Mountain Leader Training Course we delivered last week. Wednesday was dry and bright so we went to the Ballachulish horseshoe to look at how to use a rope to safeguard people in the event of an emergency. There is no planned use of a rope in the Summer ML so it is just for emergency use and with no slings or karabiners. We chose good anchors and set up various ways of looking after people including the mountain leader. We found brilliant botany again including globe flowers in bloom.
Finally we enjoyed a two day expedition with an over night camp. Thursday and Friday were foprecast to be very wet again and with 40mph winds on the tops so we stayed low and camped next to Essan bothy on the south side of Loch Eilt. On the way there we walked over Beinn Coire nan Gall and did lots of navigation, leadership and environmental awareness. These are brilliant hills with virtually no paths and lots of interesting terrain. If you want to get away from everything and immerse yourself in botany and geology this is the place to go.
Last winter was mild and short, and we have had a warm, sunny and wet spring so the flowers are all doing very well right now. They seem to have come out sooner and in greater numbers than in previous years. Perhaps this is the year we should have done the Ben Nevis North Face Survey!
Day two of the Summer Mountain Leader Training Course we are running was all about leadership and the environment. We started yesterday by going through the programme for the six day course and exploring the scope of the award and the kind of work you might end up doing with it. We then did a whole lot of navigation training from basic through to really quite complex. We also looked at the weather and how to read a synoptic chart, and a couple of models of leadership ready for today.
We went up to the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis. we could not cross the Allt a'Mhuilinn easily lower down as it was quite high after rain last night. We looked at assessing and leading groups in all sorts of situations from simple paths to complex and difficult terrain as well as the leadership styles required to do so. We practised safeguarding people on steep sections in a command style and how to manage differences in abilities in the people in the group. We also looked at techniques to build confidence in people to help them down terrain they are not happy with.
Land management and the impact of deer, humans and many other things on the ground were hot subjects. The botany on Ben Nevis is a favourite subject of mine and we were treated to a display of sibaldia and moss campion in flower, dwarf cudweed, speedwell and what I think was wavy meadow grass. This was certainly in the area that we found it last august on the North Face Survey but it has been a while since then and I might have got it wrong. Finding lots of wavy meadow grass, and in two new locations, was a great result of the survey.
We went to the foot of Number Five Gully, up to the top of Moonlight Gully Buttress and across Coire na Ciste to come out underneath Douglas Boulder. Thankfully I know my way around these areas as we were in thick mist just about all day! We only saw one patch of snow in the left hand gultch - I don't think the snow patch counters will have a big job this year.
I go to the wild to be put in my place, to be battered and
embraced by wind, rain and sun;
I go to the wild to be reminded of what matters in this world;
I go to the wild to remember who I am;
I go to the wild to feel;
I go to the wild.
R. Bradley 25th April 2017
Rachel Bradley is a student at West Highland College here in Fort William. She wrote this poem recently, when she finished writing her dissertation as part of her fourth year studies. We liked it so much we asked if we could use it and you'll now see it on the home page of our website. Her dissertation is all about motivation to take part in outdoor activities and it got me thinking more about why I like climbing mountains so much.
Immersion in Nature
The first thing to appreciate is the value of being in touch with nature. I know people whose job it is to re-green city streets so that people get to see things growing in their daily lives. GP's are prescribing daily doses of being in nature by walking through a town park, which is very good for people with depression. Imagine then the positive impact on us when we immerse ourselves completely in nature by climbing mountains. The further away from anything man made the better. Once you know about why the landscape looks the way it does, you'll realise that it is all affected by people. However, if it is growing or natural it is easy to convince yourself that it is wild and natural, and we can be totally surrounded for days at a time.
Modern daily lives are lived at a frenetic pace with continuous stimulation and information for us to digest. It is important to take time out every now and then; breathing space to reset your brain, slow things down and take stock. You can do this in many ways, all of which are a form of meditation. In fact you can simply meditate in your front room. However, when you combine this meditation from physically and mentally separating yourself from your day to day concerns with total immersion in nature, it becomes all the more effective.
Climbing mountains is perfect exercise. It involves a fat burning, lung and heart loving cardio-vascular work out with plenty of bending, stretching and toning. We are designed to be out and about, constantly moving and working. Climbing mountains is the best way to get that level of exercise that you can keep doing well into later life, that is continuously inspiring and that is free! No gym membership fees are required to walk or run or climb up a mountain!
You can get in touch with nature, meditate and do exercise in a park in a city and achieve everything so far. This would be a very good thing for everyone to do. However, mountains also the chance to challenge ourselves, to push us to our limits and to feel what it is like to be committed to our own ability for survival. I don't just mean hanging off cliff faces, although for some this is the level of challenge that is appropriate. For most it is taking on a walk, reaching the top of a Munro, scrambling along a narrow ridge or dealing with all the natural hazards of winter. Think how much more intensely we are connected to nature when we take on this challenge in the mountains. How much more are we separated from our daily lives when our whole world is reduced to a single moment, a single hold on the rock, a single bearing on the compass we have to get right. And think how much more we will drive ourselves to perform when getting back down in one piece is dependent on it.
Rachel's poem expresses all this perfectly, and far better than I can ever hope to do. We don't climb mountains "because they are there". We climb them for very good reasons that are well understood, studied and researched. It's a potent mix of being in touch with wild nature, escape from our daily lives, exercise and challenge that gives us the chance to reset, re-calibrate, and regain a proper sense of perspective on the world.
Northerly winds have brought the temperature down markedly on Ben Nevis. Last night it was freezing on the summit and we saw rime ice growing on the rocks and cairns. This forms when loud is blown onto exposed rocks in sub-freezing conditions, making ice grow into the wind. By the time Alistair and I got there is was starting to melt away but it was certainly still cold on top.
Alistair has walked a good few mountains in Ireland and around the world so we got on absolutely fine on Ben Nevis. The colder conditions were ideal for walking up and as long as you put on some warm clothes when you stopped it was fine then too. Hats and gloves were essential though. We got the usual view from the summit unfortunately but the cloud had risen to 1200m on the way down so we had brilliant views over to Rum and down to Mull. It's been really quite a changeable week of weather so we were lucky to have a pretty good day today.
David first climbed Ben Nevis in 1979 with his father. It was through his father that David got into climbing mountains in the UK and in the Alps. He has carried on walking ever since and today David took his son James up Ben Nevis. To make it even more fun we went the hard way; the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.
We walked up the long slope to Carn Dearg Meadhanach and into the cloud. We saw the North Face cliffs and gullies for a short while on the way up but unfortunately they were quickly hidden behind the cloud. It's a long way up to Carn Mor Dearg, the first of the two Munro's but we got there in very good time ready for the narrow ridge connecting it to Ben Nevis.
The cloud was only slightly damp and the wind dropped away as we went around so it was actually quite pleasant up there. The rock is quite grippy where people have trodden before and we managed to stay right on the crest all the way around. There were only two other people on the ridge but when we got to the summit of Ben Nevis there were, as always, a good few more people. David said that in the 38 years since he was last there one thing has certainly not changed - the view from the top!
Twenty five years ago James walked up Ben Nevis and looked across the North Face from the summit. You get a great view straight through Tower Gap and he saw some climbers making their way across. He thought you'd have to mad to do something like that. Today, he saw the view from the other perspective and, for the people looking from the summit, he was that mad person climbing Tower Ridge. So, this climb of Tower Ridge was 25 years in the making and it was done to raise funds for Cancer Research, a cause that deserves all the support it can get.
I had a cancellation this week which meant I could be a bit flexible with which day to go climbing with James. This worked out well - we had Tuesday booked, changed it to Thursday, then changed again to today. Thankfully this worked out and we got the best day of the week by far. It was cool and cloudy as we walked in but the sun came out half way up the ridge and we walked down in hot sunshine. James climbed really well and we got to the top in quick time, even with a few stops to enjoy the view.
A little mist swirled around the summit crags to show us the gullies and buttresses. The rock was dry and the views tremendous. There were a few other climbers out on Raeburn's Arete, Route One Direct and Ledge Route. There were several hundred people enjoying the good conditions on the summit as well, and the path was a continuous line of people walking up and down.
There was a huge amount of old rope, slings and tat at Tower Gap. I cleaned up all of this and half filled my rucksack with it. In the past I have got into trouble for doing this - it has been suggested that I want to make the route harder so that more people will book a guide. This is nonsense and I don't mind anyone leaving behind a bit of rope or a sling if they need to abseil. However, there is no need for subsequent climbers to keep on adding more rope and slings to it. Climbers should be able to assess the state of a sling and either use it or replace it, not simply add to it. We need to keep our playground clean and tidy, which is why I tidied up today.
The weather has been very changeable this week. The first half of the week turned out to be quite wet, especially on Skye, whereas the end of the week was hot and dry. Unfortunately this is the lottery we play when we choose dates to go climbing. For Gary and Steve it did not work out very well. They were climbing in the Cuillin on Monday to Thursday including a traverse attempt. At the end of Wednesday they decided to return to the valley, soaked through after the rain did not ease off as hoped for. They did a lot of great climbing but it was not what was hoped for.
For Chris and I it worked out much better. We started up into Coire a'Grunda on Thursday morning in the mist hoping the forecast was more accurate and that the clouds would clear away. We got as far as Sgurr Alasdair before they did but eventually the clouds broke and the sun came out. A lot of rain had fallen though so the cracks and seeps were wet for a long time. We avoided TD Gap knowing that it would be really wet but we did have a go at King's Chimney. This turned out to be pretty wet also!
We made excellent time, especially when the rocks dried out properly. The sun was hot the wind stopped us from over heating. We got as far as An Dorus on the first day and settled down for a dry night. Since there was so much water in the ground still we found a very good dribble close to An Dorus to fill up with water. This meant we could drink as much as we liked to re-hydrate, a crucial thing to manage on any traverse.
Yesterday morning was dry and breezy again, keeping the heat of the sun at bay thankfully. We got an early start (6am) and continued steadily and smoothly over Bidean and An Casteal before we saw anyone else. The last three, Bruach na Frithe to Sgurr nan Gillean are always more busy and we saw a good few people on this section.
With no hold-ups though we got to the end at just after 12noon and made it down to Sligachan just after 3pm. This was Chris's first trip into the Cuillin and what a way to start out! He has a lot of experience of climbing, mountain marathons and Alpine climbing, so he was very comfortable on the Skye Ridge. It was so nice to be able to enjoy it in such brilliant conditions as well. If it does not work out first time, it really is worth trying again until you get a dry and clear traverse. It's world class!
The west coast was shrouded in cloud at all levels today so there was nothing to see from the big lookout (or shepherd) of Etive. Buachaille Etive Mor is a great name as the view is so impressive over Rannoch Moor, when you can see it. Mike and I have both seen it before though so we were content to enjoy some slightly wet but fun climbing on North Buttress.
We did get a wee glimpse through the clouds from the top of Cuneiform Buttress to show us the grand scale of the mountain. It was very impressive to look down on the cars and trucks so far below. We traversed across the top of Great Gully on some horrible scree and found Great Gully Buttress to descend. This is a moderate scramble (grade 1/2) and goes straight back down to the path. So, not many kilometres travelled horizontally today but many metres of uphill and downhill on tricky ground! We also saw plenty of white lousewort. The pink version is more common but Buachaille Etive Mor has lots of the white stuff too.
Summer Mountain Leader Training courses include an over night wild camping expedition. We chose to go way out west to climb the two Corbets of An Stac and Rois Bheinn near Lochailort. I've been up these hills a few times before and they epitomise west coast hill walking and the kind of thing you can get up to with a Summer ML qualification. We had wonderful views out to sea and the islands of Rum and Skye, as well as fantastic walking over wild, pathless mountains.
Yesterday we went up Seann Cruach and An Stac. It was quite cold, even when the sun was out, and we had showers of huge hail stones as well. The air quality was great though and we could see for miles. We did lots of training in leadership and navigation as well as the environment we were walking through and camp craft skills to make sure we leave no trace. Since we did not get any poor visibility we did some night navigation for three hours. The stars were out and it was a beautiful night as well!
This morning we woke to a bit of cloud on the tops but this soon cleared in the sunshine and the wind died away slowly throughout the day. We walked up the wonderful peak of Rois Bheinn and carried on around the ridge to Druim Fiaclach. This is a brilliant ridge with easy walking over soft moss or clean grippy rock. The ridge is always interesting with knolls and dips, twists and turns. There is barely a path and we only saw one other person up there all day. If you want some breathing space and some wild mountains to walk up with amazing views this is the place to come.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.