Jeff is a climber from the US who did a lot of ice climbing in the 1980's in New England and Washington. He has recently gone back to climbing and is recalling his dreams from the 80's, one of which was to try the unique experience of ice climbing on Ben Nevis. So, after thirty years of waiting, Jeff finally got to have a go at some super classic Ben Nevis ice climbs this week, and it was a real pleasure to help him achieve his goal.
We got an early start on Tuesday but just missed out on being first in line to Climb The Curtain. Ice climbs on Ben Nevis do not get much more classic or sought after than this one. The climbing was typically Scottish with lovely soft snow-ice, very good for climbing but not so secure for protection. Jeff was straight onto it and breezed up the slab, getting used to modern technical ice axes and mono-points as he went, a very different experience to climbing with his gear from the 80's. We did the climb in three pitches, uncovering the in-situ anchor at the top of the second pitch. If you have 50m ropes it is best to do it this way; 60m ropes will reach to the rock on Ledge Route if you want to do the whole thing in two pitches.
The weather was windy but cold and dry so we went for another climb. On the other side of Coire na Ciste we found Vanishing Gully was free so we jumped on that route. More lovely, soft snow-ice made the climbing very friendly but the protection very dubious. A 55m pitch on this gets into the best cave belay on Ben Nevis. Steep moves above make up the crux of the climb and another long pitch lands you at a simple two pitch abseil down 1938 Route back to the start. What a brilliant first tatse of ice climbing on Nevis, two mega-classic routes on a really good day!
Yesterday was supposed to be the best day of the week with a ridge of high pressure settling things down. It did but only for a couple of hours before the next weather front piled in from the west. So, Jeff and I got another early start and we beat the crowds to the Minus Face. This was a popular destination yesterday morning with several teams trying to get onto a climb and get back down early, before the change in the weather. Jeff and I got to Minus Three Gully first and really enjoyed the climbing. It's an easy enough pitch into another cave belay then a very spicy pull through past the icicle that hangs over the entrance of the cave. Two more brilliant pitches of lovely climbing in a superb place got us up to NE Buttress a short way above the First Platform, just as the weather turned.
We did one long abseil onto the First Platform traverse line and followed this into Coire Leis. The wind had been eroding the snow on the this face which I was grateful for to reduce the risk of avalanche. I was not grateful for the wind blowing snow right in our faces as we struggled to see what direction to go in! Proper Ben Nevis conditions is what Jeff expected though and that's what we got yesterday! Ben Nevis ice climbing had a lot to live up to for Jeff and we got everything he thought it would be. Three super-classic climbs in great condition on two very nice days. Sometimes, things work out very nicely.
We have had a succession of cycles of heavy snowfall, a brief rapid thaw with rain and a subsequent refreeze. This is the perfect weather for building snow-ice on Ben Nevis. We had another one last night and yet another forecast over tomorrow and Saturday. Right now, lots of climbs are looking very good. Most of the big classic climbs are very well formed and some of the more rarely forming climbs such as Minus One Gully, Mega Route X, The Shroud and Gemini are forming up nicely. Few of these climbs have been climbed since the weather has been so bad we have not been able to get to them! However, when the weather settles down a bit, I think we will be in for a real treat, a feast of ice climbing in the gentle Spring weather. From what I saw of NE Buttress and Tower Ridge, the big ridges are very well covered in good snow and excellent to climb. Harder/steeper mixed climbs have a thick coating of icy rime and ice in the cracks so will be a bit more challenging. The big snow gullies and coires are very full of snow so skiing will go on well into the Spring as well.
Sarah and Rosie are up in Fort William for a few days to brush up on their winter skills before heading out in the Scottish mountains on their own. Yesterday we went up towards Stob Ban in the Mamores to find some good snow and shelter from the wind to go through the basic skills, including kicking and cutting steps, using our axe to stop a slip and lots of avalanche awareness. We were then ready to move on to a day of navigation today.
After a brief session indoors we went to Beinn a' Chrulaiste in Glen Coe. Being fairly rounded it is a great place to practice some nav without having to go too high. And yet, despite being only 857m in height, it gave us a proper Scottish experience and even a bit of white room navigation at times. There was a cornice forming around the top of the north east coire as we approached the summit and it was tricky to see the edge, so it just goes to show that the smaller mountains should never be underestimated.
The ladies did a fantastic job and confidently took us to the summit in some tough conditions. Tomorrow they'll use all of their new skills to plan a route based on the conditions and safely take us around it. It's looking like another snowy and windy one!
The ice on Ben Nevis and most other mountains of Scotland needs stormy weather to build. Recently, we have had a lot of very stormy wether with rapid changes in temperature and lots of precipitation. This is all perfect for turning snow into snow-ice and we are starting to get a lot of it on Ben Nevis. I met Dylan and Tom at the CIC Hut with the idea of climbing Tower Ridge. It was too windy for that but plan B turned out to be a real winner.
We went into Coire na Ciste and saw huge avalanche debris from a slide out of Number Five Gully last night. The temperature rose during the night and triggered a few big avalanches. It was already cooling down by the time we were there though and there was eroded snow on the slope beneath Number Three Gully Buttress. This gave me the confidence to carry on up to the start of Thompsons Route, kepping off to the side of the runout zone of Number Three Gully.
Thompsons Route is full of nice soft snow-ice. The climbing is lovely but not overly protected without a lot of digging to find cracks in the rock. I did place a few ice screws though. Intense showers of hail made it very uncomfortable at time sand the spindrift was pretty full-on at times. In between the showers, it was quite calm and very pleasant. The climbing was certainly very good fun indeed and gave us just the right mix of challenge, fear and fun!
Mega Route X is just about fat enough to climb, although you would want a much colder day to climb it. We were wet on the climb today despite the freezing level being down at the CIC Hut. On top, it was very white, windy and stingy. Goggles were essential! More of the same tomorrow. It's turning into a proper winter.
Ben Nevis and all the mountains north of the Central Highlands were spectacular today. The wind died away at last during the morning leaving us with a beautifully calm and sunny afternoon. Not many people were out on the North Face due to the huge amount of snow that got blown in to the coires and gullies over the last few days and there were only a few places you could get to safely. So David and I enjoyed a rare quiet day in the sunshine on brilliant ice climbs on Ben Nevis.
We went to climb Vanishing Gully on the west side of Tower Ridge close to Douglas Boulder. This is a brilliant short climb with the most perfect belay in a cave half way up. The ice was narrow on the first pitch and not very thick but all fine to climb. The second pitch was on really good solid ice, as steep as ever, but with the chance of some cheekybridging on the rock on the right to take the sting off the gradient. We abseiled down after being very happy to see the snow bowl above the climb was scoured clear of any soft snow.
For a second climb we went for Fawlty Towers, right next to the abseil down from Vanishing Gully. The left chimnety is iced up and garde II but the right hand option is about grade IV on good ice as well. We did this and veered left into more interesting ground all the way to the crest of Tower Ridge. We walked off the traverse ledge towards Observatory Gully and again we were happy to find solid, icy snow instead of deep windslab.
All the gullies are very full of soft snow now and the coires have very good cover down to the CIC Hut. It's looking good for the spring skiing. One team made it up Ledge Route but had to cross some deep drifts of fresh snow to do so. Up in the ridge it looked lovely. Tower Ridge was also climbed and it looked like hard work to put in a track. Quite a bit of ice has been forming from dribbles coming out of the older snow. One team was high in Zero Gully today, Hadrians Wall Direct and Point Five Gully are good to climb, Orion Direct might be about there and the Minus Gullies are shaping up. Getting to these climbs is the tricky bit without being avalanched. The snow is settling down and after a couple of rapid thaw freeze cycles over the next two days, it should all be a bit more stable.
There is ice to climb that you can get to safely. Around the base of Carn Dearg Buttress, on the First Platform (such as Green Hollow Route) and along the side of Tower Ridge as far as Italian Climb.The strong winds will be back with us tomorrow and for the next few days though.
More stormy weather with lots of fresh snow has been with us so far this week. Sunday gave us a very rapid temperature spike that got the fresh snow of Saturday a bit wet. It then cooled down during Sunday night, freezing a crust on the snow, and we got some fresh snow and graupel. David and I enjoyed North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor along with a few other people. We fouind some very helpful snow-ice and it was cold and dry so we stayed comfortable, despite the wind and heavy spindrift on the route. We abseiled off due to the wind and tried to keep out of everyone's way (not completely successfully, sorry!).
Today was windier from the start and the snow is accumulating much more. David and I took the long plod up to Stob Coire nan Lochan which took a good 45 minutes lomnger than normal due to the deep soft snow and big swirls of wind in the coire. The rocks are disapearing under the fresh snow but the new snow is quite blocky - windslab with a couple of weak layers underneath. We were happy to walk up to the crag but we certainly did not want to descend Broad Gully afterwards.
David and I climbed Raeburn's Route on Central Buttress. We added a bit more spice to the first pitch and found the second pitch under quite a bit of snow. There is some useful snow-ice here too and the climbing was mostly very nice. We were sheltered from the wind on the crag and prepared for the battering we were going to get once we topped out. It was definitely a goggles day on top!
Ice is forming quite quickly in Glen Coe. The Screen has some good ice on it as well as The Smear. Streams are freezing up as well. On Ben Nevis there is ice growing quite quickly but there is also a lot of snow being blown into the gullies. Buttresses are best for the moment but once the snow settles down after a good thaw and refreeze, the ice will be very nice.
Dolly Parton sang, "If you want to see the rainbow, you've gotta put up with a bit of rain." Yesterday was a bit wet and soft with no views other than the inside of the white room. Even so, lots of people were out climbing on Ben Nevis and having a nice time. Rintje, Pete and I enjoyed the Central Gullies on Ben Nevis and found really quite nice ice which even took a few ice screws. We also found a really helpful exit past the cornice, a little coridor between the rock and the very overhanging snow. Number Four Gully got us back down very easily into the gloom.
Today was a different experience altogether. The damp weather of earlier this week gave way to a clear night and a calm, sunny day full of blue skies. Despite the strong temperature inversion the snow froze and was pretty solid everywhere. The views went on forever and it was bone dry all day. It was a day well worth waiting for and made up for a lot of wet, windy and warm days we have endured so far this winter.
A lot of the mid-grade ice climbs were climbed yesterday and today. Glovers Chimney, Beam Me Up Scotty, Number Two Gully Buttress, Number Two Gully, Comb Gully Buttress, Comb Gully, Green Gully, Number Three Gully Buttress, Thompson's Route, South Gully, Creag Coire na Ciste Central Gullies among others. The ice is a bit cruddy in places still and protection is not plentiful but in general the climbing is pretty good.
Of the harder ice climbs, Smith's Route was climbed today by the icicle variation, Hadrian's Wall Direct was climbed yesterday (looks a bit thin to me!) and there was a team in Point Five Gully today (I'm not sure how they got on!). There is a thin smear of ice on Mega Route X and Boomers Requiem looks good.
The big snow gullies are very full and there is good snow cover down to 900m or so. Number Four Gully and Number Three Gully are both pretty simple to descend right now.
The big ridges are well filled in and climbing very nicely. There was rime on the rocks today but it was thick, icy rime and mixed climbing would be tricky. There was a team climbing Gargoyle Wall today and seeming to get on pretty well.
Rintje and I wanted to climb Green Gully but Guy's team got there first so we swerved into Comb Gully, which is just as good and had nobody else in it. Really nice climbing, with no cornice and a very easy exit, got us to the sunshine on the plateau in good time so we descended Number Three Gully for another lap. Just down Number Three Gully you can get into South Gully very quickly and this gave us some more very nice ice climbing up to the very large cornice. This one had no easy exit! So, with a bit of down climbing back to the last belay, I went out left and found a cornice free exit about 20m off to the side of the top of the gully.
Rintje has been coming here to climb in winter since 2010 and we have had our fair share of challenging weather. The last couple of winters have not been very good to us either so today was a rare treat. What a difference a bit of sunshine and solid snow make to the experiuence! We made the most of it by going up over the summit to soak up the views and we went down into Coire Leis which is simple to do if you drop in about 50m before the cairn. Coming back down this way means you get to see the whole of the North Face which was quite a sight to see today!
Yesterday I had so much fun climbing Twisting Grooves that I went back up to Stob Coire nan Lochan today for more. I am climbing with Rintje this week, who has been coming here for climbing for eleven years. He has seen the full spectrum of climbing conditions in that decade! Today was pretty good, a very nice day but only average climbing conditions. We started up Twisting Grooves and went into Moonshadow, a classic combination at IV,5. If the Right branch of Twisting Gully is iced up you can start up that to get onto Moonshadow but there was no ice today so we stuck with the mixed climbing.
We followed Niels and Chris up the first pitch of Twisting Grooves which was a bit easier than leading it first yesterday. The hooks are more obvious and the ledges cleaned off. It's then easy to get across to Moionshadow which takes the huge and obvious groove on th eright. It is really turfy to start off with and has plenty of what would be loose blocks in the summr. The turf was sufficiently solid today, but certainly didn't inspire much confidence. A cautious aproach was best! The top chimney of Moonshadow is brilliant though. Solid rock with brilliant hooks and great fun, gymnastic climbing all the way to the top of the crag.
Other teams were climbing Dorsal Arete plus the direct start, Twisting Grooves, Raeburn's Route on Central Buttress and Ordinary Route on Summit Buttress . We walked down Broad Gully which was untracked. It would be amazing on skis!
Twisting Grooves on the crags of Stob Coire nan Lochan takes its name from Twisting Gully, an historic climb that winds it's way through very impressive terrain at a relatively moderate grade. Whereas Twisting Gully is devious, Twisting Grooves is actually beautifully direct, following a line of grooves from bottom to top of the buttress. A lot of twisting and grooving is required to climb it though with lots of great, technical moves on every pitch. Surprisingly this was the first time I have climbed the route and it was Mick's first winter climb for a couple of years. We both had a brilliant time and I will certainly be back for more Twisting Grooves.
Very strong westerly winds were forecast for today with a dropping freezing level. This crag faces east, so it is sheltered from the wind, and the freezing level had dropped below the bottom of the coire by the time we got there. Old snow was starting to firm up again and small bits of turf were frozen, blocks were mostly frozen in place. It was not in prime condition by any means but it was a good option for us today. I would not have liked to have been on anything harder but the crags were not rimed up anyway so the hard routes were not white.
There is pretty good snow cover in the coire. Rocks are sticking out at the bottom but the gullies are complete and there is a good crag apron of snow. There were no big cornices and the snow in Broad Gully on the descent was very stable with an icy crust for most of it. We did get blown around a bit on the short walk from the top of the climb to Broad Gully but as soon as we started to descend it was sheltered again. We had some blue skies and some quite intense squally showers of snow during the day but we came down dry.
Snow cover is building up on Bidean nam Bian but it's not really good enough or low enough to take our skis up yet. We will get a few more showers this week and it will stay generally colder; no mega thaw thaw this week, thankfully!
Sometimes, winter climbing in Scotland is a battle. Everything seems to be set against you; the heavy rucksack, the wind, the deep snow, the short days, the spindrift, the icy ropes, the thaw. We go in to battle against everything that tries to resist our upward movement, not to defeat the elements, but to test ourselves. It's a physical challenge and there is pleasure in hard physical work. It's also a mental challenge, trying to work out the best route to climb, how to approach it, how to protect it, where the route goes, how to get down after the climb.
There's another kind of mental challenge too, one of will power. There is no point shouting at the wind, swearing at the deep unconsolidated snow, complaining that there is no anchor for a belay. You can't stop the ride and get off because you have had enough. Sitting down and sulking because you don't like it anymore does not get you back down to the comfort of your home, where you long to be. It's this test of resilience and the way we are put back in our rightful place by the total understanding that the elements do not care, that are so good for us. They build humility.
Tower Ridge was really hard today! Billy and I started in a cold, crisp morning, admiring all the fresh snow. We knew what we were letting ourselves in for, or, at least, I did, and I tried to explain it to Billy! There was a lot of wading and trench making just to get to the bottom of Douglas Boulder. We certainly did not want to go up East Gully to Douglas Gap so we went along the flank for a wee way and onto the access ledge that comes out onto the crest just above Douglas Gap. The worst of the floundering was likened to being in a rip tide, trying to swim in to the shore when the current is trying to take you out to sea. The ridge crest was topped in many places by a beautiful narrow crest of snow. It was a shame to walk through the pure lines of wind blown snow but it was also very hard work in the uncompactable snow.
Despite being on a ridge, we were very aware that the line of ascent goes across some very exposed steep slopes, and just a small avalanche could carry us off into the abyss. We protected ourselves against this with the rope and carried on digging the trench. The Eastern Traverse felt especially tenuous on soft foot steps with no hope of a hook with the picks. So, when a huge avalanche rumbled down Observatory Gully a few hundred metres beneath our feet, it made us feel even more on edge.
Billy and I topped out into rain and a strong wind from the west. We were happy to be walking down but straight away found that walking down was not going to be easy either. Knee deep, wet, dense snow slowed progress and we had to dig out more mental resilience to keep working away and to get down, despite having wet, weary limbs.
Finally, we did get back to the van, just after dark, sincerely tested and happy that we were up to the test. For me, it was a tough climb, and my back aches thinking about it again as a write this. For Billy, on his first ever winter climb and his first day in crampons, it was an amazing achievement! What a perfect day of Scottish winter climbing!
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
Fresh snow fell down to sea level today and we got a lot more of it than was expected. A Moderate avalanche hazard forecast turned out to be a Considerable hazard reality and it was a day to reign in plans and be a bit more cautious. Just driving up the forest track was risky enough! Tom, Brad, Sally and I went up Ben Nevis with the hope climbing something onto the top but we changed plans to climb Douglas Boulder by its SW Ridge instead.
After a week of thaw and with this snow arriving in the last 24 hours it is not surprising that the blocks were not frozen in place. There are lots of loose blocks on SW Ridge at the moment. It takes a good bit of care to climb past them without pulling on them or knocking one off. The climbing was fun though and the position is brilliant. Other teams were climbing the East Ridge, Tower Ridge and Ledge ROute. They are all the same - lots of fresh soft snow on rocks!
We went up onto Tower Ridge just for a short way to explore the access/descent ledge that goes in to Observatory Gully. This is a really handy ledge to know about since it makes descending Tower Ridge much easier and gives an alternative start to the ridge. More fresh snow over night and over the next two days generally before a chance of a warmer spell at the end of the week.
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.