It's been a very stormy week. Continuous strong winds brought snow this week and have left deep deposits in very sheltered places only. Thankfully, these are in all the right places for climbers and skiers!
On Thursday it rained up to the summits and now the old snow has settled and has a decent crust on it with some fresh, cold, dry snow on top. The skiing today at Nevis Range was lovely in the fresh snow from last night. There were a few icy patches to be wary of but in genreal it was really good fun to be out skiing. Well done to Nevis Range for getting anything open today after a ferocious week of weather! The skiing was pretty good in some Glencoe Gullies such as Broad Gully and Boomerang Gully too.
In all the stormy weather and with some thaw freeze action, ice has been forming too. Up on Ben Nevis, all the big ridges are well filled in with snow now, the gullies are full and topped with cornices, and there is ice forming on the mid-grade routes as well as the steeper classics. After a few more thaw freeze cycles next week there might be some very nice ice climbing to enjoy soon(ish).
Meanwhile, mixed climbs such as The Great Chimney and Jacknife have been climbed and today there was some rime on high buttresses and plenty of snow on the ledges.
Will it still be good in February? Well, nobody knows, but we have places left on our Performance Winter Climbing Workshop on 22nd and 23rd February so I hope so!
The weather has been terrible this week. Part of my shed roof got blown off on Monday and streets have been flooded in Caol, despite being used to a bit of rain every now and again. Today was a very good day though, a big change in the weather caused by a ridge of high pressure giving us a freeze and fresh snow down to 500m or so. Light winds and just a few clouds way above the tops made the views very good too.
Nigel and I had planned to go out climbing on Monday, and I'm very glad he was able to change to today. We went up to Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis to see what was there. We found a little fresh snow that freshened up the look of the place, making it look and feel much more wintry. The snow has blown in to the heads of the big gullies but hasn't added much to the snow pack. The rocks were not rimed below about 1250m and most of the buttresse were black. However, the old snow was very nicely frozen and there was just a tiny bit more ice than there was on Friday of last week. It was +15C at sea level at the start of the week but even this didn't strip everything!
If I had a pair of ropes today instead of just one single rope, I would have gone to climb Green Gully. That's not to say it would be steady away grade IV ice climbing, it would not be! But it did look like there would be enough ice and build up of snow-ice to make it possible to climb with a few hooks and steps on rock. A strong Swiss team climbed Two Step Corner on thin and patchy ice before finishing up Quickstep (I think) on true mixed ground. The mid-grade gullies on Creag Coire na Ciste are still basically bare of ice. Glover's Chimney has no ice on the first pitch but the rest of it is fine! Bumber Two Gully and the big easy gullies are all complete apart from Number Five Gully and the Castle Gullies.
Nigel and I took some variations to the normal route of Number Three Gully Buttress. We went right and up a groove after the first ice pitch, theen right and up another groove to get straight onto the rock step of the normal route. This is a really nice variation that adds a lot more climbing but at the same grade. There are many different finishes to the route and we took the most exciting! Straight up from the last belay is a thin chimney that gets you onto a ramp going right to a brilliant wee pedestal in a fantastic position. Climb this and step off the top to the top of the crag.
We enjoyed the views from the top before cutting a snow bollard and abseiling into Number Three Gully. There is no cornice to speak of and it is possible to climb down from the top but we wanted to refresh the details of cutting snow bollards.
If we get more of these lean winters, we need to start thinking about climbs differently. In my mind, Two Step Corner is an ice climb that needs to be fat with ice to make it a good climb. However, the Swiss team that climbed it today were having a great time, and had been put off by any preconceptions about it. Last winter I climbed the Central Gullies on Creag Coire na Ciste when they were very thin and patchy, and we enjoyed really good climbing. Some ice climbs will not be fun in mixed conditions, but many of them will be. I wonder when someone will make the first ascent of Point Five Gully as a mixed climb!
After heavy rain at summit level yesterday it was nice to get another good day today. The temperature dropped rapidly at 9pm yesterday and the snow had firmed up again by the time we got to Coire na Ciste today. A few snow showers added to the wintry feel of the day as well with some spindrift and swilry winds blowing the snow around every now and again. In between the squalls, it was pretty calm and the climbing was fun.
At Abacus Mountain Guides we work with trainee mountaineering instructors and British Mountain Guides to give them an aportunity to get some experience of working in the Scottish mountains in winter. This starts with a day out together for us to get to know each other, to do some climbing and for us to share knowledge aboput lots of guiding and intstructing things. Scott and Pete are trainee Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructors and Tim is a Trainee British Mountain Guide, and we all went to climb Number Three Gully Buttress.
The climb is thin, patchy and soggy in the first pitch, great snow on the second, rocky with verglas on the third pitch and quite rocky in the last two pitches. Slightly sub-prime conditions but fun for a strong team even so. It's a really reliable climb that is good to climb as long as there is enough ice on the first pitch. This ice forms pretty quickly but even so there was not much there today! Other teams were climbing Number Two Gully and Gardyloo Gully as well as Ledge Route and the other big snow gullies.
From the top we went up to Tower Gully which we descended all the way back to the CIC Hut. There is a little ice on some of the big climbs out of Observatory Gully. Smith's Route, Point Five Gully and Hadrian's Wall Direct all have a little ice but nowhere near enough to climb. It's a start though and something to build on. The warm forecast for the next two days does not look too promising but it does look like it will cool down slightly next week. Fingers crossed!
After the warm rain of Christmas there is still a little snow left in the Highlands. Most of it is in the big gullies and high corries of the highest peaks and most of it was very nicely frozen today. A ridge of high pressure brought clear calm weather last night allowing the humidity and temperature to drop, and the snow to freeze. It's worth noting that the grass was well frozen at the CIC Hut this morning, even after only one cold night, showing us the ground is cold and ready to hold snow and form ice for us. All we need is a few falls of snow without the big thaws in between so that the snow cover can build up a bit.
Even so, we have more snow than we had at this time last year. Number Two Gully is complete as well as the major grade I gullies on Ben Nevis. Gardyloo Gully is quite well filled in as well. I climbed this in January last winter and found a really nice steep ice pitch underneath the chockstone. I think this ice pitch is covered with snow already and the grade might be more like a II at the moment. You could possibly get up Number Three Gully Buttress and a team went round the first pitch of Glover's Chimney to climb the rest of this route to Tower Gap today.
James, Skye and I went to climb Tower Ridge which turned out to be an excellent choice and popular! Other teams were climbing Ledge Route and Number Three and Four Gyllies, but there were also at least six other teams on Tower Ridge as well as us. It is not in easy condition - there is verglas on the rocks all the way to the top of the Little Tower and not much snow. What snow there is on the climb was very nicely frozen today and very helpful for us. We put on the crampons at the bottom of the Little Tower but other peopl put on theirs before us, and another team put theirs on much later! It's a bit wkward to know what is best.
Despite the number of people climbing we all got on very well, there was little hold up, and it was a lovely day. Light winds and expansive views helped! Unfortunately we might be back to low cloud, drizzle and a gentle thaw tomorrow. It's not all thaw on the forecast but there is not very much new snow forecast either. The long term forecast for January indicates general temperatures above average or the time of year so it could be a bit like last winter when we take what we get when we can get it. Days like today are a blessing and to be made the most of.
So the decade that started with the legendary winter of 2010, with super cold easterly winds and great volumes of snowfall, might go out with a winter notable for it's warmth and low snow cover if it turnes out like last winter again. It could be that global climate change is showing its face through the great variability of Scottish winter weather. Just about all the snow patches melted away in Scotland in the summer of 2019 and they all went in the summer of 2017. Then again, the winter of 2018 was the coldest for 25 years. It's so hard to say if there is any trend and one thing is for sure, the Scottish winters will always keep us on our toes! Happy adventures in 2020; make them deep and meaningful.
On Tuesday of last week it rained heavily at all levels for much of the day and it was really warm. Since then it has been a lot colder, lots of snow has fallen and ice is starting to form quite well. All the water in the ground has been dribbling out of the cracks and down the gullies, mixing with the snow that's been swirling around and cascading down the crags, to form some nice looking snow-ice. Last night gave us a frost as well with odd showers of rain at low levels so we started off with a really awkward bit of ice on the tracks and trails. Susanne and I put our crampons on just a couple of hundred metres up the Allt a Mhuilinn path and kept them on all day.
Susanne has done a lot of trekking in Nepal and is away to have a go at Mera Peak in March. She was here to get some experience of wearing crampons and of doing the kind of ropework she'll need to do in Nepal. On Monday we went up Stob Ban North Ridge which was a wade fest in the soft snow above 400m! Yesterday we went to the Pink Rib of Beinn a'Chrulaiste which had a good amount of snow on it even though it has been facing the wind. Walking down was another plod through thick deep snow, even at 650m above sea level. Today we went up to the CIC Hut under the North Face of Ben Nevis and enjoyed the good path and a trail in the snow! We had a go at glacier travel ropework just above the hut. There is so much snow there it felt just like being on a glacier!
All the major gullies on Ben Nevis are full of snow and the boulder fields in the corries are covered as well. There are sizeable soft cornices above the gullies and the snow is all soft with lots of windslab. Avoid the gullies for a while! Snow-ice climbs are starting to form some ice. Point Five Gully and Hadrians Wall Direct have a little ice on them. After the thaw freeze cycles forecast over the next few days, we might have some climbing to do. There is also ice forming nicely on routes such as Gemini, Waterfall Gully and Boomers Requiem.
The crags are white and have a very good cover of snow and rime on them. There might well be ice in the cracks making mixed climbing tricky and slow going, and wading up to the crags will be hard work. The big ridges are well covered and will be lovely to climb after the snow has been transformed into snow-ice. If we get the right combination of thaw and freeze over the next week or so, we will have some great conditions for climbing. The long term forecast suggests a return to colder conditions after Christmas. Fingers crossed it all works out!
Scottish winter climbing is world renowned for its adventure and quality of experience. Nowhere is it better than on Ben Nevis. So popular and well known is Ben Nevis, that climbers from all parts of the globe can be heard calling to each other while enjoying the unique style of climbing found here. The traditional approach to climbing is strongly maintained and the history of the climbs is well remembered. Modern ice climbing was developed here and that heritage adds greatly to the modern day climbing experience.
Harold Raeburn made the first ascent of Green Gully just over one hundred years ago which remained the hardest ice climb in the world for early 30 years. In his expedition report he apologised for not being able to climb the main objective, Comb Buttress, and being forced to go for the lesser objective of the gully running up its side. He was a man very far ahead of his time and his ice axe plays a significant role in the Scottish Mountaineering Club to this day.
In the winter of 1960 Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith completed the most significant week of climbing ever achieved in Scotland. Orion Direct, Smith's Route, Minus Two Gully and the first single day and free ascent of Point Five Gully were amongst the seven climbs they completed on consecutive days. All of this was achieved with a single ice axe each and crampons with no front points. Jimmy Marshall is renowned as the master of climbing ice by step cutting and was the main driver behind the amazing week of first ascents he made in 1960 with Robin Smith, often referred to as
"The Pinnacle" of the step cutting era.
Ten years later in 1970 Yvon Chouinard made a brief visit which was to trigger a change that would revolutionise winter climbing. Using prototype curved ice hammers he made some very fast ascents demonstrating how to climb ice by direct aid, hanging off the pick itself embedded in the ice. Comparing techniques with John Cunningham, Hamish MacInnes and many others, modern ice climbing was born.
That year Hamish MacInnes developed "The Terrordactyl", a short, all metal ice tool with a steeply dropped pick. The "Terror" and Chouinard's ice hammer dominated the forefront of international ice climbing for several years. Eventually these two designs were combined to create the banana pick which is still the basis for modern ice tool design. Today, nearly fifty years on from The Terrordactyl, we are still using the same techniques. It's no exaggeration to say that modern ice climbing technique was developed in Lochaber and Hamish MacIness was at the forefront of this.
Currently, the hardest naturally protected winter mixed climb in the world is on Ben Nevis - Anubis, climbed by Dave MacLeod. Ben Nevis has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and is now again at the forefront of winter climbing. By continuing to be the venue for cutting edge climbs with the style of climbing and protection we’ve used for over one hundred years, Ben Nevis is setting a worldwide standard for climbing and continues to produce some of the finest climbers in the world. Our style of adventurous climbing is now seeing a resurgence in other countries and our ethos of mountaineering is worth defending.
The last few days of mild weather has stripped away a lot of the snow cover that we had, but the cold weather has finally returned!
John booked to do CMD Arete and he could not have picked a better day for it. The snow had returned to give the mountains a fresh dusting, the winds were calm and the high clouds cleared away to beautiful sunshine.
After reaching the summit of Carn Mor Dearg we were joined by two snow buntings who proceeded to follow us along the ridge for a bit before they gave up scrounging for food and left us too it. With the fresh snowfall and a fair amount of rime, progress along the ridge is not swift and care should be taken, but the final climb up onto the summit of Ben Nevis was aided by the odd patch of neve which had survived the thaw.
We had a sunny Ben Nevis summit to ourselves which is a very rare treat, then descended the zig-zags. Down to about 1000 metres there is plenty of firm snow and below that it was very icy and slippery - probably the hardest part of the day!
It looks like another stunning day tomorrow so enjoy it if you're getting out there!
If the rest of the winter carries on like this I'll be made up! I've had two days out now, both in amazing weather, cold, clear and calm. If anything, today was even better than Wednesday last week, made better again by climbing with Cathy. We went for NE Buttress on Ben Nevis, a total classic and the route that dominates the skyline as you walk up the Allt a'Mhuilinn. There's no problem finding this route, it's the really obvious ridge reaching up into the sky right in front of you!
It has stayed really cold but there has been no fresh snow fall. Where there is some watwr dripping down the cliffs it has been freezing into cascade ice. In fact there is a lot of it on the path just below the CIC Hut from the water pipe splashes. Waterfall Gully would just about go I think and there is a significant amount of ice on the higher pitches of Gemini. The Lower Carn Dearg Cascades could be good for some low level ice climbing action as well.
With no thaw freeze to transform the snow into snow-ice, it is soft and useless for climbing on. NE Buttress was quite tricky as a result with some very tenuous sections. It is better (easier anyway) with some snow-ice in the grooves and corners but Cathy is a mixed master climber and we made very good progress moving together for long sections and throwing in a few pitches at the hard sections. There is a hard pitch below the Man Trap, a very tenuous wall with slopy ledges, very poor hooks and no protection. A bit of solid snow-ice transforms it into a wee pull over but today it was quite challenging. The Man Trap was fine though since the cracks are free of ice, and the Forty Foot Corner was quite hard.
All day long we were treated to the most stunning vista of mountains from Schiehallion to Skye, Ben Wyvis to Ben Cruachan. The Cairngorms obviously have a lot more snow than we do on the west coast and Glen Coe does not have that much at all. The mixed climbing on Ben Nevis is very good though with a nice coating of rime that makes everything white but it easy to clear away. Take care though, with no snow-ice some of the blocks are not held in place at all. We might get a bit of consolidation later this week as the temperature rises slightly. It's not looking like a mega thaw by any means though, the trend is still pretty cold.
What a wonderful day we had in Scotland today. A ridge of high pressure brought calm, cold and sunny weather after a really good freeze. I was keen to see what's been happening on the crags so I went for a wee wander up Tower Ridge to have a look. It looked amazing!
It has been cold now for three weeks and the ground is pretty well frozen. The Halfway Lochan has ice right over it, the ground is quite well frozen all the way down to 300m and the bits of turf on the crags seem to be frozen too. The compacted snow on the path is hard and icy so it would be worth having crampons if you are walking up. There is ice forming in the usual drainage lines with a spring above, such as Waterfall Gully, Compression Cracks and the Lower Cascades underneath Carn Dearg Buttress. None of these is fat enough to climb yet though.
The snow is a bit crusty and walking is heavy going in places. There are a few very small patches of old hard snow but most of it is dry and not very helpful. The wind has been blowing from the north west so the tops of the big gullies are scoured, with no snow in them at all. However, the buttresses are all very well rimed up and frozen. The rime is dry and easy to clear away as well, and the cracks do not have ice in them, so mixed climbing is very good right now. All the steep routes on Number Three Gully Buttress and Creag Coire na Ciste looked brilliant.
On Tower Ridge, the snow is not very helpful and it covers up all the useful bits of rock, so the climbing is quite tricky. Normal early season conditions! If you know the route well you should get on fine, otherwise it will be a slow climb. My boot prints from today might help though! And when the weather is as nice as it was today, there's no real rush! Cold weather is forecast to stay with us right into next week. It's been a great start to the winter, getting the ground really well frozen before too much snow comes. We're now ready for snow and some storms with thaw freeze cycles to build some lovely snow-ice.
Last year I described the different types of ice climb we enjoy in Scotland, and what is required for them to form. As it turned out, very little ice formed last year at all! So, this time, let's look at mixed climbs. We've already had the first few ascents of mixed climbs of this winter. Here's what to look out for when it gets cold again.
Mixed climbing has always been pursued in Scotland but it has become more popular in the last couple of decades. Whereas in ice climbing there is a limit to how hard it gets due to the nature of how ice forms, in mixed climbing there is virtually no limit. What is possibly the hardest naturally protected winter climb in the world is found on Ben Nevis; Anubis, climbed by Dave MacLeod and repeated twice since. Greg Boswell McInnes made the third ascent in 2019, a particularly poor winter for climbing. This illustrates the attraction of mixed climbing, that good climbing conditions can form quickly and there is ample opportunity for a challenging climb!
In the same way as with ice climbing, judging the nature of the climbing conditions is a tricky job and one that demands dedication, time and many attempts, both successful and unsuccessful. Once you know what to look for and how the recent weather affects the climbs, you will be able to make better decisions.
Mixed climbs need to be white and frozen to be in generally acceptable condition. Dry tooling is not acceptable on Scottish crags away from some low level training crags. In the mountains, the crag needs to be be wintry in appearance, white with snow or rime and frozen. This is the ethical approach that has developed over many years and is peculiar to Scotland. Many foreign climbers are baffled by these restrictions, but we abide by them to maintain the quality of experience and so that we are all playing by the same rules. Waiting until the crag is properly frozen also protects turf from excessive damage.
Different types of mixed climbs might be termed snowed up rock climbs, turfy mixed climbs or true mixed climbs on which a mixture of rock, turf, snow and ice is experienced. All of these types of route need to be well frozen to give good climbing.
Snowed Up Rock Climbs.
Snowed up rock climbs can freeze first due to being mostly made of solid rock. Even so, blocks, chockstones and flakes need to be frozen in place, and this takes a couple of weeks of sub-zero conditions at the start of the winter. They often make a good choice for the first climbs of the winter season because they are first to freeze, don’t require any thaw freeze cycles and can offer reasonable protection.
“Snowed up rock climb” is actually an unhelpful name for this style of climb. It is rime that is more effective at making the climb white and that will provide better climbing conditions. Rime is a type of ice crystal that grows on any surface exposed to humid air being blown onto it in a sub-zero temperature. It is often seen on fence posts and, perhaps confusingly, grows into the wind. So, you need a wind blowing cloud on to the crag and the temperature to be below zero. No snow fall is required at all. After a westerly gale, choose a crag that faces west and has been in the cloud.
The best conditions in which I’ve climbed snowed up rock have included really well frozen rocks and a light rime of a couple of centimetres that is easily brushed away to reveal (hopefully) cracks and ledges underneath. The crag was totally white at the start of the day but the climbs were brushed free of rime by climbers on various routes.
Delicate dry rime can fall off the crag in a strong wind and is likely to fall off in very dry, cold air. This means that the crag can be white one day but black the next day despite the temperature staying below zero. Once the crag is out of the cloud the rime will start to deteriorate. Sunshine will also strip rime from the rocks faster than you can climb them!
However, rime can grow to be a metre deep and turns very icy if it experiences thaw freeze cycles. The summit observatory ruins on Ben Nevis often have incredibly thick rime ice all over them in March that has built up over the previous three or four months and survived many thaw freeze cycles. This is not good to find if you want to climb the rock underneath. In thick, icy rime, it can be a monumental struggle to clear the rime off the rocks for the whole pitch.
Thaw freeze cycles will also create dribbles of water that run into cracks and refreeze. Iced up cracks are a problem; finding pick placements can be very hard and uncovering protection incredibly tiring. Snowed up rock climbs are best early in the season when the cracks are still clear of ice and the rime is light and fluffy.
Snow fall can also make a crag white in appearance. Cold, dry snow will not stick to the rocks. It will pile up on ledges making the crag look white from above but not from below. If the snow is a bit wet (this happens when the temperature is at or not far below freezing) it can stick to the rocks and make the whole crag go white. This wet snow can also freeze into an unhelpful icy crust which is hard to clear from the rocks when you are climbing.
Some snow on the ledges is very often a helpful thing to have on all mixed climbs, including snowed up mixed routes, especially once this snow has transformed into solid snow ice after a freeze thaw cycle.
Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor, Crest Route on Stob Coire nan Lochan, Slab Route and Gargoyle Wall on Ben Nevis are all excellent snowed up rock climbs.
Turfy Mixed Climbs.
Turf freezes slowly. Small tufts of turf freeze first and freeze most quickly when they are exposed to a cold wind. Wind chill affects the crag in the same way as it affects us when we are exposed to the wind. Big patches of turf can take many weeks to freeze properly but can be damaged or even completely removed from the crag if they are climbed over before they are frozen.
However, once properly frozen, turf will stay frozen through some quite substantial periods of thaw. It will hold water in a thaw which will dribble down below the turf and freeze into ice of one sort or another in the refreeze. So, turfy mixed climbs can become really quite icy over the course of the winter. There is nothing more satisfying than placing a pick in a solid, icy lump of turf!
Turf commonly holds snow on top of it which is transformed into snow ice with thaw freeze cycles. So, turfy mixed climbs quite often turn into true mixed climbs over the course of a good winter, with a mixture of turf, rock, ice and snow ice.
Turfy mixed climbs, like any mixed climbs, should look wintry and white. Rime and snow should cover the rocks. There is an argument that only the turf needs to be frozen and icy, that the rocks don’t need to be white as well since they are not used for the climbing. This is mostly the case on sandstone crags found in the far North West and is also a matter of opinion. It would be easier to say that all mixed climbs need to be white and wintry in appearance with the rocks covered in rime or snow.
Morwind is a very good turfy mixed climb on Aonach Mor which changes in character to a true mixed climb and can actually form so much snow ice that you don’t need to use the rock at all. Thompsons Route on Ben Nevis is the same but it requires some snow ice to be formed before it is fun to climb whereas Morwind is good fun as a turfy mixed climb with no snow ice. Taliballan on Stob Coire nan Laoigh is a wonderful turfy mixed climb that turns into a brilliant true mixed climb with varying amounts of ice and snow ice depending on the nature of the storms of the winter.
True Mixed Climbs.
Those routes that demand a specific combination of snowed up rock, frozen turf and ice of various kinds are true mixed climbs. Being so specific in nature and requiring the perfect combination of factors in the weather over the course of a couple of months, these are highly sought after climbs.
Gemini and The Shield Direct on Ben Nevis are perhaps the best examples. The first few pitches are on steep ice formed by melting snow patches above providing water to freeze into cascade ice. This is followed by a mixture of snowed up rock, snow ice and little bits of turf in the upper pitches.
So, now you know what is required to form good mixed climbing conditions, hopefully you will have more success in finding them. You still need to know or to assess the nature of each climb (if it is a snowed up rock route, turfy or true mixed climb) to determine whether it will be a good choice on any given day of climbing. For the moment, you'll need to work this out by yourself.
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.