Keen to burn off some of the festive excess, Alasdair, Lachlan and I climbed Tower Ridge today. These guys are very used to the Scottish mountains and they have done a lot of skiing and some climbing as well. After doing some great routes on peaks in other parts of the world they thought it was about time they did some climbing back home on Ben Nevis. They got the full Scottish experience and loved every minute!
We had steady light drizzle for much of the day and not much of a view at all. Despite this it was clear to see that ice has been building in the topsy turvy weather we had over Christmas. It was well above freezing at all levels on Christmas Day and one of the wettest days we've had for a long time. However it was back to freezing winter conditions on Boxing Day and with plenty of running water to freeze into ice. The Curtain and Nordwand on Castle Ridge North Face both have thick smears of ice and there are blobs of ice in lots of places. The snow was saturated and froze solid too so there is some very nice hard snow around. Al and Steve climbed Number Two Gully Buttress yesterday and had a fun time on hero snow!
Such rapid changes in temperature along with rain create ice on ledges and in the cracks, neither of which are very helpful sometimes. On Tower Ridge we put on the crampons to go up to Douglas Gap where we saw dribbles of ice coming out the first awkward chimney. So we kept the crampons on and in fact didn't take them off the whole way. Higher up there is not much snow on the ridge but there is ice on the ledges and icy rime on most of the faces making it slightly delicate climbing. Tower Ridge was a popular choice today because it is good and climbable in all conditions, even tricky conditions like today.
There is snow in the big gullies which is now quite solid. The great ridges have a little snow on them - some deeper patches and lots of rime and ice on the ledges higher up. However Castle Ridge is probably mostly clear of snow on the tricky sections. Above 1100m or so you might well find enough icy rime on the rocks to have a go at some mixed climbing and the turf is frozen and icy. Ice in the cracks might well make it tricky to protect some climbs though. There are a couple of mid-grade icy snow climbs that would be worth a look at too. However, it will be really quite warm up to Saturday, and very wet again, so take several sets of gloves. Sunday and Monday look much colder though and more promising for fun climbing.
Since the official start of winter on the shortest day of the year snow has been falling on the hills of Scotland more or less continuously. Above 400m or so very strong westerly winds and regular heavy snow showers are depositing snow in sheltered locations. The ground is scoured where it is exposed to the wind and has just a thin cover of snow. The accumulations of snow are patchy but deep and composed of wind slab that has built up very rapidly. The temperature is forecast to go up and down rapidly too. Needless to say, we have some challenging conditions to deal with at the moment!
So what is the best approach? How do we get out and enjoy the challenge while making sure we have every chance of coming back home with smiles and tired legs? Thankfully some very clever people have put a lot of thought into this and have come up with a process for us to use to stay safer in the hills in winter time. It's called Be Avalanche Aware.
When I first started out winter walking in Scotland I was taught to walk up to a slope underneath the gully I intended to climb, to dig a snow pit and assess the layers in the snow so that I could decide whether or not to climb the gully. Over the last 20 years we have worked out that this is not a good approach, mostly due to the human factors that we all fall foul of. If we were able to assess the snow and make a decision based solely on what we see in front of us we would have more of a chance. Even so, a snow pit does not represent the threat in the gully above so it's a pretty poor system. And anyway, none of us can make a decision based on the evidence in front of us and nothing else.
When you look closely at winter accidents (and indeed most accidents anywhere) you find that many of the factors that lead to the accident have nothing to do with the hazards faced on the day.
So how do we avoid these traps? It's not possible to avoid them completely but we can go a long way in the right direction if we use the Be Avalanche Aware process.
It says we should make most of our decisions before we set foot on the mountain by looking at the SAIS Avalanche Forecast and Mountain Weather Forecast. We should check out the avalanche hazard and where it is first and see what the weather will be like. Next up we should think about who we are climbing with and our own ability, experience, skill and equipment. Lastly we should start to look at routes that fit the conditions and ourselves.
When we walk in we should look for signs that the avalanche forecast and weather forecast were accurate (and if not we should be prepared to alter our plans) and that we are feeling as fit as expected. What we see should be no surprise because we spent a lot of time planning the day in advance.
Lastly, when we get to a crucial decision point during the day, we should already be 95% decided on what we will do and all we have to do is a last check that it's all going as planned.
We are very lucky to have SAIS avalanche forecasters and weather forecasters who will be working right through the holidays. There will be people out on Christmas Day checking the snow and avalanche hazard for our benefit. Raise a glass to the forecasters and do them the favour of planning your day based on their work. Be Avalanche Aware and enjoy the winter.
Happy Christmas from the team at Abacus Mountain Guides.
Going through the system of qualifications to work as a mountaineering instructor or mountain guide is a long process. All aspects of mountaineering judgement, instructional capability and guiding skills are thouroughly tested. The best way to perfect these skills after the training courses is of course by doing the job but this brings its own challenges. So, along with other experienced mountain guides and instructors, I help a few MIC trainees through the process by working with them as a mentor.
Before we let any trainee instructors look after our clients by themselves we go through a few days of training and shadowing. Today Sally and I were out with Matt, Rob and Caspar on Douglas Boulder and Tower Ridge to see them in action and talk through all sorts of things to help them on the road to their final assessment. They are all very talented climbers and instructors so these are small things that might help them go from being good at what they do to being great at it.
The rock was bone dry making a big change from yesterday! It was also much colder and ice was forming quickly. The turf was half frozen as well so any concerns about the ground warming up over the last couple of weeks do not seem to be right. When the snow arrives over the next few days the ground will be ready for it and climbing conditions will form rapidly I think. Very strong winds and lots of precipitation will make climbing or walking very difficult until after Christmas. However the gullies will fill up quickly and we will see a return to wintry climbing conditions like we had a few weeks ago on Tower Ridge.
Three days of winter mountaineering with students and staff of St. Paul's School in London changed into a Great Ridges of Lochaber trip and was a lot of fun. We started on Saturday with a climb up Ledge Route on Ben Nevis. There was a little snow on the top half of the ridge which was very nice but just cosmetic. It stayed mostly dry for us until we topped out into the wind which drove the drizzle onto us a bit more. For a first day out in Scotland the team did very well and got used to the rope skills and the navigation needed to get back down again.
Yesterday we went for Curved Ridge to make a step up in difficulty. The guys moved together for most of the ridge placing slings and using natural anchors to run the rope around as they went. We went to the top of Crowberry Tower so that we could abseil down again which proved pretty tricky. The rocks were super slippy anywhere they were not trodden regularly. It's the lichen that makes them slippery and this gets worn off by the passage of boots. If you stray off the beaten path you need to be ready for some slippery rocks.
Today we went for Castle Ridge on Ben Nevis. It was slightly warmer yesterday and today and there wass certainly no snow on the ridge. It was a bit wet too so the going was slow. For a Moderate climb it's pretty tricky, especially in the wet when the temperature is low. It's a great route though with two fine corners making up the crux sections and a brilliant narrow ridge above that takes you to the top of the route. We got glimpse of a view here, the first for threee days, which was nice!
At last the clouds cleared as we walked down the NW flank of Carn Dearg and we got a brilliant view out to the west. In fact we got to see a super bright rainbow as well. I think I quoted Dolly Parton not long ago - "If you want to see the rainbow you've got to put up with a bit of rain"! Well done to everyone from St. Paul's School, that's three classic routes in challenging conditions and you all did really well. From tomorrow the weather will change again. This time the high pressure is moving away completely allowing returning polar maritime air to batter the west coast on strong winds. We're in for a stormy and cold few days and snow will build up quickly in the hills. You might like to hibernate over the Christmas holidays and come out again to white mountains and icy gullies. That would be a nice Christmas present!
The Certificate in Outdoor Leadership students at West Highland College complete expeditions on foot, in kayaks and on mountain bikes in the first semester. This year we went to check out the great trails on the Glen Livet Estate. It's a bit of a drive from Fort William (2 to 2.5 hours) but there is a 22km red graded route that is really fun. There's lots of swoopy, flowing single track and a few features to keep you on your toes but still on your pedals hopefully. There's a nice little pump track and a cafe and the trails are very well looked after.
Today we went for a longer ride round the Crown Estate which took in Meall Daimh. The high moors offer some really nice riding and there are lots of forest tracks to enjoy as well. We got a bit bogged down in farm tracks at times in between the nice trails but it's a nice part of the world to explore. It's still warm and showing no sign of cooling down for a while yet. Winter walking and climbing will be back shortly. Keep the faith!
Someone left the door open and the tropical maritime draft has melted away most of the snow. It would be useful if this door could be closed again to allow for more seasonable conditions.
It did not feel at all wintry on Ben Nevis today but Cecile, Jenni, Katrin and I made the most of the remaining snow patches to cover some skills in preparation for the coming winter and ski touring trips they have planned. These guys are on the Adventure Tourism Management course at UHI West Highland College and we got through a lot of stuff including many tips for keeping dry and warm in the winter, how to walk with big boots on, kicking steps in the snow, rope work for Alpine and scrambling ridges as well as glacier travel and crevasses rescue. We even got the crampons on but only for a minute or two!
There are pathces of snow down to the CIC Hut level but they are quite small and not very useful. We're not quite back to square one but not far from it. Snow showers on the summits at the weekend will be welcome but it looks warm again for the start of next week. Should we all ask Santa for a return to winter conditions for Christmas?
October and November were very dry months for us here on the west coast. The last bit of snow we had was a light dusting on Friday night which came down to about 900m or so. We have had some very cold frosty mornings since and beautiful weather. The weekend gave us two very nice days and Tommy and Kieron from Jottnar were up for a bit of winter climbing. They went for the classic Tower Ridge which certainly felt quite wintry. The fresh snow made the rocks white but little rime has been growing due to there being light winds. The climbing did not require crampons but any day on Tower Ridge is a good day and this was a very good day!
At long last it looks like we have a big change in the weather starting tomorrow night. The high pressure system that seems to have been with us for a month will move east over the continent allowing a succession of low pressure systems to move across Scotland. It's going to rain! However, we need precipitation to get some more snow and now the ground is very cold any snow will stay with us. It looks like we'll have a few warm days but just like Dolly Parton says, "If you want a rainbow, you gotta put up with a bit of rain"!
I was running up to the CIC hut today when a thought crossed my mind. Why am I doing this? It was my first run for a couple of weeks so about three quarters of the way up from where I'd left my bike my legs were starting to feel the burn. I was also fending off the last of a cold, and had just left my nice warm bed. I could still be in that bed. Drinking coffee. Or at Three Wise Monkeys climbing wall. Or sat in front of my nice open fire. Or, or...
Instead I had decided to run from sea level up to 670m. It happens often. If I have a day off, come rain or shine, I'm going for a run, and usually up a hill. If I wake up to the sound of rain pounding off my bedroom window. Oh, I know what I'll do. I'll run a lap of Cow Hill. I'll run up a mountain. I'll go smash out a set of the most hellish hill sprints. Yes, those things that you're supposed to loathe and only do because someone said they're good for you. I love them. Especially if it's raining.
Luckily today was not one of those days. It was beautiful. Cold, blue skies and no wind – perfect for a run. And yet with burning thighs and croaky chest I was wondering why. Why am I still running uphill when my legs are on fire and my chest is on fire and I can't breathe right and now I'm really hungry?? The answer that very quickly followed this question to myself was this: because the more I run up, the more I get to run down. Simple. I get to achieve my goal. I get to spend more time experiencing the thrill of flying downhill. I get to stay longer in the incredible mountain environment, running under the North Face of Ben Nevis. I get to feel free and put off going back inside that little bit longer.
Yes, it hurts. Sometimes it hurts a lot. But it's a satisfying kind of pain. One that I love and that has become a little bit addictive. Because after the pain comes the pleasure. The pleasure of reaching the summit, or the wonderful descent, or getting a faster time, or finally getting up that hill without having to stop and walk.
The best pleasures in life require the hardest work. I don't really remember any of the doughnuts I've eaten in my life – even if they were delicious at the time – but the memory of crossing the finish line of my first Mamores Half Marathon this year will never leave me. And that's because it was hard. So if that means I have to run up mountains to find that pleasure for the rest of my life then so be it. I think I can deal with that. There's certainly worse things to be addicted to. Like doughnuts.
So that's it. I run because it's hard, and because it hurts, and because sometimes it hurts so much that I want to give up and go home. I run because I know that when I don't give up, when I keep running on, when I reach the top and the pain is finally over it will feel oh so good, and oh so worth it.
As for why I have a penchant for sprinting up the same stretch of hill over and over again in the pouring rain? Beats me. That one might just be stupidity.
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.