Something like 80% of all the heather in the world is in Scotland. Much of this is in the Cairngorms and today it looked like it was all in flower. The Cairngorms have turned purple! What a wonderful sight it was for Sue and I as we walked up onto the plateau to do some navigation. Bog asphodels have been doing very well this year as well and we saw plenty still in full flower, sharp yellow counterpoints to the purple haze.
Despite the weather forecast for thick cloud on the tops and persistent rain, it was mostly dry this side of the A9 and we had much less cloud than expected. It was cold though with a stiff westerly breeze that brought out the dachstein mitts and wooly hats. We went up through Coire Laogh Mor and round the east side of cairngorm before coming back over the top and back down through Coire Ciste. We did get some cloud and low visibility on the very top as well as some rain which was useful for the navigation we were doing.
So we now have another fine summer mountain leader. Sue passed today by demonstrating good navigation skills all the way round the walk. I know that the Duke of Edinburgh students she often works with will have a great time with her as their mountain leader. For me, this was a wee warm up to another mountain leader assessment we have starting on Monday. It looks like we will get some mixed weather for that too!
Tomas and his father Charlie wanted to climb Old Man of Hoy to raise funds for Climbers Against Cancer. At the age of 12, Tomas is quite young for such a big challenge and the question was asked, who made the youngest ascent? It seems that Tomas not would be the youngest; Ollie Buckle climbed it last year with his father at the age of 10. With a bit more digging into the archives, it transpired that a 7 year old boy climbed it with his father way back in 1968.
One of the 15 million viewers who tuned in to watch the 1967 live spectacle were father and son, Arthur & Roy Clarkson. They planned their ascent for the following year. Seven year old Roy and his father from Lancashire took five hours to get to the top, watched by his mum and brothers and sister. The Orcadian reported that once on top they enjoyed some orange juice and blackcurrants before building a cairn!
However, Tomas climbing the Old Man of Hoy at the age of 12 was a very notable ascent and we planned on climbing all three Patey stacks in the one trip. Old Man of Hoy, Am Buachaille and Old Man of Stoer were all first climbed by Tom Patey and if Tomas could climb all three he would be the youngest person ever to do so.
Charlie, Tomas and I met in Inverness on Saturday along with star mountain guide Donald King who would be climbing with Kelvin. We also met film students Fiann and Charlie who came along to record the climbs on film. It was a wet and blustery drive north to Thurso but sailing past the 300m high cliffs of Hoy and getting our first view of the Old Man were inspiring. It takes a whole day to get to Rackwick Bay from Inverness with 120 miles of driving, a 90 minute ferry ride to Stromness followed by another 30 minute ferry ride to Hoy and a short taxi shuttle to Rackwick Bay. Thankfully, we were greeted by a wonderful bothy in one of the most spectacular bays in Scotland. We sorted gear and settled down for an early start to go climbing the next day.
Sunday turned out to be dry, sunny and not too breezy. It was perfect for climbing the red sandstone of Hoy. There are no restrictions imposed on us by tides since Old Man of Hoy is not tidal. We scrambled over the boulder ridge connecting the stack to the mainland and got on with the climbing. There is just one simple pitch before we were thrown into the crux pitch of the whole trip. As well as being E1,5b climbing there is a descent and a traverse to get into the crux corner system which is overhanging above and undercut below. It's really quite a spectacular place to get used to sea stack climbing! As ever with sandstone, bridging and pushing on the flat and rounded holds is the key, something that is hard to train for on a climbing wall!
After the crux pitch the climbing eases off dramatically. However, there are four more short pitches each with a mix of damp rock, sandy ledges, loose blocks and fulmars vomiting and pooing on you! We got to the top in good time though and enjoyed a few minutes soaking up the unique character of a sea stack. Being surrounded by the ocean is quite a feeling on a rock climb and we even saw a pod of orca swim by the base of the stack! There was such a sense of everything fitting together for the trip. The weather, the team, the challenge; it was all coming together. Getting up is just half the job though and we had three tricky abseils to enjoy to get back down before a second night at the bothy in Rackwick Bay.
Just as it took a day to get to Hoy, it took another whole day of traveling to get back to mainland Scotland and around the north coast to Sheigra. This was another wet day and we were grateful to be driving. Free wild camping in the sunshine at Sheigra with a bit of bouldering set us up for the climb of Am Buachaille. This is certainly the most serious of the three stacks with a long walk in, no phone signal, a swim to the stack and bold climbing on dubious rock. Again, the sun was shining so the swim was very pleasant (once we were used to the cold shock of jumping in!) and we got to the summit in plenty of time.
There is some time pressure on Am Buachaille to get back to the mainland before the tide comes in. There have been a few enforced nights spent on the summit and we did not want to add to this list! Youngest person to spend a night on a sea stack was not a target we wanted to reach! One abseil gets you down though and we even managed a wee tyrolean traverse to get Tomas (and Donald just about) back across the channel in the dry. A relatively short and absolutely spectacular drive got us to Lochinver pie shop for dinner!
In comparison to Hoy and Am Buachaille, The Old Man of Stoer is quite friendly. There was a tyrolean rope in place and the rock is quite solid and non-sandy. In fact the climbing is really good and with no fulmars it turned out to be a really fun day of climbing! We were in the groove, well used to the feel, the atmosphere and the smell of sea stacks and we enjoyed a few minutes of warm sunshine on the summit looking over the ocean to the Outer Hebrides and Canada beyond.
So, the team of Tomas and Charlie, Kelvin, Donald and I climbed all three Patey sea stacks in the sunshine in five days. For Tomas, this is the youngest ascent of all three; for all of us it was one of the best climbing trips we have made in Scotland. The group of people, the weather and the climbing itself all made it a trip to remember forever. Many thanks to Fiann and Charlie for coming with us and filming the whole thing. I'm really looking forward to the footage and the film that will be out in a few months. Scotland really is the best!
Days like Lachlan, Alasdair and I had last week on Tower Ridge are few and far between. So today it was much more like a normal day on Ben Nevis, but a good normal day even so. We stepped up a notch to take on NE Buttress, the vast and dominating classic ridge of the North Face. It looks down on the walk up the Allt a'Mhuilinn and disappears into the mist; steep, dark and moody.
If the mist is really far down it is very hard to find the start of the traverse across the bottom of the Little Brenva Face to the First Platform. No problem finding it today but it was, as usual, wet and slippery. There are some very delicate steps on this traverse and the drop below is huge straight away so you need to be switched on right from the start. Arriving at the First Platform is a jaw dropping moment; the drops away from you in a single step as you catch the view back down the Allt a'Mhuilinn. This is where the ridge starts but the climbing weaves a devious route left of the crest for quite a way.
The Man Trap is such a good name for an inocuous looking piece of rock high on the ridge. Just the scraped rock from too many scrabbling feet with crampons in winter give a clue to the difficulty of this one move. It would make a nice boulder problem but it is several huindred metres up in the air.
We made the top in the mist and missed the summit by heading down towards the CMD Arete. As we went down into Coire Leis the clouds cleared a little again and we could see it was quite a nice day out of the mist. NE Buttress is much more slippery than Tower Ridge simply due to far fewer people climbing it and cleaning the lichen off the rocks. So get up there and have a go, it can only get grippier.
This was one of the best days I've spent on Ben Nevis. Occasionally we get days of sunshine and I have enjoyed plenty of them in the past. It takes a bit of cloud along with ther sunshine to really show off all the complex ridges, gullies and buttresses of the north face though and today we had just the right combination of sunshine, dry rock, light breeze and cloud. It really doesn't get much better.
Lachlan, Alasdair climbed Tower Ridge Ben Nevis in the winter and didn't see a thing. This was a real shame for the guys but they were not put off. Instead they tried again and it payed off today. We climbed Tower Ridge again and the contrast with our winter climb couldn't have been much greater. We got an early start and watched the cloud burn away as we walked up in the shaddow of Carn Mor Dearg. As soon as we got onto the dry rock of the ridge the sunshien warmed our backs and the mist swirled gently around the coire beklow our feet, coming and going in huge gentle waves.
Although the cloud was rising during the day we stayed above it all the way to the top and didn't see anyone else on the North Face. There were plenty of people on the summit watching our progress and enjoying the sunshien as well. We went over to Number Four Gully to check out the saxifrages growing there (all doing quite well by the look of them) before descending Ledge Route for a different way down and to escape the busy Pony Track. Well done Lachlan and Alasdair, I'm glad you got to see it today. Good luck on the Matterhorn!
It was mostly hot and sunny in France for the last two weeks when I was on holiday at Fontainbleau, Britanny and Normandy. It looks like I've brought a bit of it home too. We had non stop sunshine in Scotland today with views from one side of the country to the other (or so it seemed anyway). I was straight back to work and it was a complete pleasure.
Sandy is off to Mt. Kenya in a few weeks time and he wanted some training in readiness for the climb to Batian, the highest peak on Mt. Kenya. This includes grade Severe rock climbing at 5200m and an over night bivi near the summit. So they did some training in Alpine moving together ropework on Curved Ridge on Saturday and some pitched climbing skills yesterday at Poldubh in Glen Nevis. Today, Sandy needed to finish off his Summer Mountain Leader Award with a day covering contour interpretation. Thankfully we did not need any poor visibility for this!
We went just past Glen Finnan to a small hill called Meall Bhuidhe. The flowers are brilliant, the views from Rum to Ben Nevis were spectacular and Sandy's navigation was spot on. He is now a Summer Mountain Leader and will be an excellent person to spend time with in the hills. What a great way to go back to work!
Much less well known than the Cuillin Ridge traverse, the Lochaber Traverse involves 31km of ridge walking and easy scrambling, starting at the eastern end of the Grey Corries and culminating on Ben Nevis, taking in seven Munro's along the way. It is far less technical than the Cuillin Ridge, and an excellent route for any hill walker looking for a remote multi-day ridge adventure. And this is exactly what Stewart was looking for during his quick hop over the pond from America. With only eight days in Scotland he was cramming in as much as possible, and opted for a three day traverse to get the full experience of the walk.
With a fairly short first day we decided to wait out the rain on Sunday morning and made a start just before lunch. The ascent to gain the ridge is long and grassy, and by the time we reached the first top of Stob Coire Gaibhre the clouds were beginning to part and we were rewarded with views as far as Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag. Reaching the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh saw us on our first Munro of the traverse, and after Stob a' Choire Leith we descended a short way off the ridge to find our camp for the night.
Waking on Monday morning, we were greeted with a much calmer and clearer day - perfect for getting along the bulk of the traverse, with the goal for our next camp being the bealach between Aonach Beag and Carn Mor Dearg. We regained the ridge and before long were standing on our second Munro, Stob Coire an Laoigh. Continuing along the ridge, the descent from Stob Coire Easain brings the only scrambling of the Grey Corries section of the traverse, and it wasn't long until we were faced with the steep climb onto Sgurr Choinnich Mor.
The full traverse is a serious undertaking, involving over 3000m of ascent over it's 31km route, and after descending from Sgurr Choinnich Beag, Stewart had realised this was perhaps a little more than expected. With a day of climbing also booked into his jam-packed schedule, he decided to save some energy for this and called it a day on the traverse. Luckily we were in the perfect place to descend from the ridge, skirt under Aonach Beag and find a very scenic (and relatively midge free!) campsite at the foot of Steall Falls.
Rain and strong winds shaking the tent on Tuesday morning made us feel very grateful that we weren't still high up on the ridge. After a leisurely breakfast in bed we packed up and made the slightly damp walk out through Steall gorge and Glen Nevis to find a very warm and dry welcome at Glen Nevis Restaurant and Bar. The perfect end to three fantastic days in the hills.
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.
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.