Three Wise Monkeys Climbing has created a very enthusiastic, committed group of young climbers since the climbing wall opened in Fort William in May of last year. With my own children included, there is now a vibrant bunch of young climbers who are dedicated to progressing through the grades and the disciplines of climbing. So, working with Three Wise Monkeys, we have put on a few outdoor climbing days for the young guns of the climbing wall as well as for parents and for anyone else who wants to come along and make the move from inside climbing to outside climbing.
Yesterday we had the full range of outside conditions to deal with as well as the climbing! It was cold and showery with wet rock that dried out every hour in a little sunshine ready for the next shower to make it wet again. It was also quite breezy making it cold to be out all day let alone for keeping fingers and toes warm while climbing. Despite all this the team of Greg and Lara (on holiday from Glasgow) , Edwin, Donald and Ross (on a day trip from Skye), and Katie (a regular in the coaching sessions at 3WM) determinedly carried on with big smiles and determination to enjoy the day and learn what outdoor climbing is all about. Jenny, Hannah and I working with the team were very impressed with the resilience of the young people in particular. Well done!
We discovered the differences between climbing indoors and outdoors (the holds are not as obvious outdoors!) and we worked out that belaying at the top of the crag is basically the same as belaying at the bottom but it feels really quite different. We chose and used trees and blocks as anchors for belaying with to set up top ropes and we abseiled down the crag too.
Do you know your French from your classic from your Klemheist? Do you know how to abseil down ropes after they have been damaged by rockfall or escape your belay system to go and get help for your climbing partner? Climbing in pairs as we normally do presents us with a difficult situation to sort out if one of the two people gets hurt during a climb. Thankfully it rarely happens but this was what we were training for with 3rd year degree students at West Highland College UHI last week; how to meal with accidents and situations on a crag and escape to safety as part of their Risk and Incident Management module.
We based ourselves in Glen Nevis, amongst the crags at Poldubh. First up we looked at the characteristics of the three main prussic knots and how we could use these to our advantage in various situations. We prussiced up and down a rope, prussiced up and transferred to abseil and abseiled down and transferred to prussic. All of this gave us a clear understanding of how prussic knots work! If you damage a rope by rock fall you can isolate the damaged bit of rope with an overhand knot. This presents a problem of course when you come to abseil down the rope. There is a pretty simple solution using a french prussic but it is certainly worth practising before you need to do it for real.
In amongst all our rescue training we also looked at how to make things run super smoothly as well. Stance management and how not to get your ropes twisted, especially when climbing as a three, requires a bit of thought but is actually simpler than is described in some articles. Abseiling is also a simple thing that often goes wrong so we looked at several ways of making sure it runs as smoothly as you'd like it to. We also went through some other situations such as lowering past a know and escaping a belay system leaving your climbing dangling so you can go and have a cup of tea while you consider what to do next.
We've had pretty good weather for the last few days and rock climbing in Glen Nevis has been a treat with warm sunshine, no vegetation making it simple to find the crag and no midges. Up on Ben Nevis the temperature dropped yesterday and we had a little fresh snow and sub-zero temperatures. There is old snow cover from 1200m to the summit and if you are walking up you will need to know how to follow a compass bearing to find the right direction especially in descent from the summit. Three guys did not quite manage this yesterday and required some help from Lochaber MRT to get out of steep and dangerous ground at the top of Coire Eoghainn. More cold weather with snow showers is forecast this week so the old snowpack will be hard frozen. Spring is here but winter conditions remain on the summits.
With the winter snow cover being so slight it was fortunate that we scheduled in a Summer Mountain Leader Assessment in the last week of March. This is really quite early for a course like this that requires summer conditions under foot on hills of a reasonable height, and also summer weather conditions. This group of candidates tried to do the assessment back in November but we had a week of freezing weather and snow cover down to sea level so it was very clear we could not run the course. This time we got another fall of snow just before the start of the course but warm weather melted it all away very quickly and we had a week of very summery conditions.
Our first day was on Doire Ban above Lundavra. I was assessing with Stuart Lade and we covered all sorts of leadership scenarios and emergencies as well as improvised rescue and dealing with water hazards in a nice day walk. Doire Ban is a lovely hill that requires a couple of stream crossings and we navigated to some small features which was tricky even with 100 mile visibility! The view to the islands was breathtaking and with snow on the high tops still it was a brilliant day to be out in the hills.
We went to Meall an t'Suidhe for the steep ground day which includes lots of group management and leadership as well as safeguarding people on broken terrain with and without a rope. In the context of a Summer ML Award, the rope is only used in emergencies. You never plan on using it. This results in using it in quite a different way to how we do in climbing.
The main event of the assessment is a three day expedition, camping in a remote and wild location for the two nights. It started out dry but turned wet and stayed wet at lunchtime on the first day and stayed wet for the rest of the expedition. We went over Froach Bheinn, a brilliant and rocky peak just west of Glen Finnan before camping and night navigating in the col to the south of the peak.
With the snow cover retreating still further we went up to the Munro Sgurr an Coireachan. This is one of the two Munros on the Glen Finnan horseshoe but approaching from the west and returning around this way meant we stayed off the beaten path all the way. In fact it was a wild and rugged expedition route which was full of the most amazing mica I have ever seen. The biggest bit was 15cm across and stuck out of a rock full of clean white quartz.
It was a strong team of candidates and I'm delighted to say they all passed. Well done to Rob, Ian, Rachel, Susie and Mark, you all did a brilliant job and worked hard all week. It's brilliant to see another crop of mountain leaders ready to go out and inspire and lead more people in the mountains.
Winter 2017 has been somewhat frustrating for me. The plan had been to get my Winter ML assessment done in January then go climbing for the rest of the season. But winter kept melting. Over and over again. So my assessment got cancelled. Over and over again. Until finally, on the 17th March my Winter ML was a pass, and at long last I could go climbing.
By some miracle this coincided with a cold, calm and clear spell of weather, so on Thursday Caspar and I wandered up into Coire na Ciste in search of ice. With rather large cornices over Central Gully we instead went for Green Gully, which turned out to be a great option. The ice was in great nick, although most of it was slightly too thin to take screws, and no cornice on the exit slopes. Topping out into the sunshine, it was perfect! Walking off, Rob and Connor reported excellent ice on Point Five Gully, and with the temperature set to rise again very soon we had no other option than to head back up the next day.
The boys hadn't been lying. The ice on Point Five was wonderful! The first three pitches were very steep, with the chimney pitch definitely the crux, but we couldn't have asked for better climbing. The snow on the top pitches was ok, skirted the small cornice on the left and once again topped out into the sunshine.
We're currently basking in hot sunshine here in the Outdoor Capital, but there is still time for it to go cold again and potentially get some more winter routes in. Even if that is the end of the season, with a Winter ML in the bag and two super classic routes ticked in two days, winter 2017 has come pretty good in the end.
Spring time in The Outdoor Capital of the UK is the best! We woke to beautiful sunshine, snow and ice on the tops, dry rock in the glen, great trails to ride and amazing views everywhere. We had the choice of ice climbing, skiing, rock climbing, biking, running or simply soaking up the sun and and taking in the wonder of it all. Today was a beautiful day and we will have a few more like it to come.
I chose skiing at Nevis Range. I got first tracks down the powder of Easy Gully which was so good I went back for another lap. Connor and Rob found excellent ice in Point Five Gully and Sally and Adam found more in Green Gully. Jamie was on the rock in Glen Nevis. Fiona was out on her bike doing a few trails around Nevis Range setting up for a running race. It was all brilliant!
Yesterday brought us fresh snow falling down to sea level for several hours in the morning. Strong winds from the SW made Ben Nevis a swirly whirly place to be and many people retreated in the washing machine effect of the coires. Today was a different story after a good frost and the clear sky bringing the sunshine. Mike and I enjoyed another fine day of good weather on Ben Nevis.
There was still a bit of wind high up today but Mike and I went for Douglas Boulder SW Ridge. The rocks were clearly scoured from the wind yesterday so the approach was secure enough - there were still a few areas to be quite careful of though. West Gully of Douglas Gap had been nearly scoured clean but East Gully was loaded up yesterday and a French team triggered an avalanche there yesterday.
Mike and I got to SE Ridge safely and enjoyed the climbing on dry rock with soft snow on top. It was a popular choice as is often the case these days but there were a couple of teams going up Tower Ridge and into Coire na Ciste. Point Five Gully looks very tempting but the spindrift was blowing up then down the gully today and the approach and exit slope could be quite loaded with windslab. There are many areas of deeply accumulated windslab on Ben Nevis, especially since the wind was SW yesterday and turned to NE today! Take care for the next few days as this snow slowly settles. Take a big pair of legs to wade through it as well.
These last three days I have been working with Nadir Khan for Ellis Brigham on a photo shoot. The weekend gave us soggy, grey conditions but we found some ice to climb and Nadir made Sally and Adam look amazing on the climbs. Today it was a lot colder and with showers of snow mixed with sunshine and bright spells it was a great day for photography. We went to the east side of Carn Mor Dearg to get out of the worst of the wind and we went up most of the East Ridge of Carn Dearg Meadhaonach. The Allt Daim was a brilliant back drop for the images, looking huge and full of texture in the swirling wind.
The drop in temperature has frozen much of the snow pretty well. Green Gully and Comb Gully were climbed today and Comb Gully Buttress, Number Two Gully Buttress, a few ice routes on Little Brenva Face and even The Cascade all look pretty good. Point Five Gully is complete I think but what the climbing is like I don't know. It might be quite insecure on firm snow rather than ice making the climbing delicate and the protection pretty poor. There's only one way to find out ....
The temperature graph of this week has had as many peaks and troughs as the Highlands! This morning we had fresh snow down to 400m and freezing temperatures. By this afternoon it was raining on top of Douglas Boulder and the fresh snow was melting fast. Despite this Bob and I had a brilliant climb before the temperature rise. We climbed Gutless on the side of Douglas Boulder which just need some snow and a freeze to firm up the turf for good climbing.
The start was quite tricky with little snow on the very first step and there is of course no ice on the steep corner before the chimney. Like this there are technical 6 moves but good protection all the way and it is all solid. Gutless gives great climbing in anything from a light cover of snow through to well iced and buried in snow. We joined SW Ridge of Douglas Boulder to find a few teams and very soggy snow, hearing avalanches coming down from the mist into Coire na Ciste. It was a wet end to a very varied week in which Bob and I have sought out great climbing in tough conditions. Well done Bob, it's been emotional!
A little high pressure over night brought us fewer clouds and the chance for the temperature to drop. Several teams got an earlier start this morning to take advantage of the cooler conditions high on Ben Nevis. The snow was firm and there drips were slower but it was a short window before the temperature went back up again with rain this afternoon. Having seen ice on The Cascade on Monday, Bob, Niels and I went to have a closer look today.
The ice turned out to be very nice to climb. It was less fat than last week but I still placed three 20cm screws. The very bottom was slightly detached but the rest of it was lovely soft fat ice that was great fun to climb. We went straight up the steepest looking pillar all the way to the top for full value and exposure. We went up the snow of Raeburn's Easy Route and finished up Expert's Choice which was also really nice and icy. Strong winds and rain greeted us on top so we went straight down by the Red Burn, being careful of the holes developing in the snow above the stream!
With a windy and not very cold day forecast it was time for an adventure that did not require frozen snow, ice or rock. Getting out of the wind would be good too so Bob, Niels and I went for a trip up Crypt Route. It was wet on the walk in and windy at the base of Church Door Buttress but once inside our minds were on the bridging, hooking, pushing, squirming and udging required to climb this brilliant route. It wasn't winter climbing, it wasn't rock climbing, it was Crypt Routing. The tight squeeze gave us an emotional crux and the abseil back down was as exciting as ever. Great fun!
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.