The ice on the North Face of Aonach Beag is really good right now. The last time I climbed here was about twenty years ago so it was way past time to go back. Having heard that Royal Pardon was really good John and I decided to head that way and give it a go. A couple of other teams had the same idea so it was a sociable day there. Stand and Deliver was climbed and it looks steep and good but not super fat. King's Ransom was also climbed I thin which looks like really good fun. But the main feature of the cliff is Royal Pardon, the narrow smear of ice that runs up the highest section of the crag and was on the cover of the previous SMC Ben Nevis guidebook.
Last time I climbed it I remember being nervous and holding on far too tightly to my ice axes. I got very tired very quickly and only just managed to climb the main pitch. This time I did much better and I had a lot of fun climbing it. The main pitch is sustained steep with a vertical section of a couple of metres but there are rests available and the ice is great for taking ice screws. With light weight 60m ropes it is pretty easy to link the second and third pitches to get to a nice place to belay and avoid the poor peg belay. Above there is a section of snow and a brilliant finishing pitch up more amazing ice.
This has to be one of Lochaber's best ice climbs. It is sustained, steep and in a wonderful setting. It was a wonderful way to finish an amazing few days of climbing with John - Dalmation Couloir, Orion Direct, Raven's Gully and Royal Pardon is a nice collection of climbs!
Over on Aonach Mor Blair and Sally were looking after our Avalanche Awareness Workshop, teaching core skills to avoid triggering or being caught by an avalanche. Despite the hard and very stable snow there are some layers to find underneath and there is plenty of learning from walking around observing the way the snow is transported by the wind and how to spot this. We also had a Winter Walking Skills workshop yesterday with another one tomorrow, then a walk up Ben Nevis on Sunday.
Over on Ben Nevis Caspar and Lee climbed Ledge Route on brilliant snow and a good trail in the sunshine. It looks like we will get a lot more sunshine and very cold weather for the next week. With easterly winds the west is best. In fact, the west is best anyway!
Just over a month ago Donald and I had a go at climbing Raven's Gully. Donald has tried before but it was the first go for me. We didn't get very far! Right now we have very different climbing conditions than we had back then. Lots and lots of snow fell in between and we had a good thaw and refreeze this week. So it was time for another go at Raven's Gully for me and John was lucky enough to share the adventure. I've looked up at it for the last twenty years and known that it was a big gap in my winter climbing tick list. It was so good to get it ticked today.
The trickiest move of the very many tricky moves on the climb is right at the start. Solid snow made it easy to get onto the first chockstone but the one imediately above is the crux and always gives a good fight. There are a couple of icy blobs on the left wall which were good to stand in and the rock is dry so it is asy to see the foot holds. The combination of these things made the move seem OK so it was game on. Raven's Gully is a lesson in chockstone climbing. It is the slottiest slot in Glen Coe and full of massive chockstones. It is very easy to get comfortable underneath each one and pretty hard getting around them all.
The snow and ice groove above the fork is no push over either. Small blobs of ice and snow were in just the right places and there was plenty of hooking in cracks as well. Some of the snow was cruddy and useless though so the climbing involved about every kind of move and hold you can imagine. We hooked cracks and chockstones, got great sticks in ice and snow, pulled and pushed with hands on the snow, bridged, pulled and balanced all the way up. Totally absorbing climbing in the most amazing place and a brilliant adventure. It was worth the wait. Raven's Gully delivers!
At long last we were walking on top of the snow instead of trenching through it. For the last few weeks we have been waist deep at times in soft snow. Yesterday it was wet soft snow but a good frost last night with a clear sky and much drier atmosphere made the snow go solid at all levels. The avalanche hazard is low everywhere and the climbing is amazing!
The snow pack was pretty soft before the thaw on Monday so it sagged a lot in the warm and wet weather. At the top of the slope beneath the Orion Face there is something like a bergschrund with some very large blocks of snow that fell off while the snow slope sagged underneath. It felt like the start of a climb in the Alps, not Scotland. It also provides a very handy ledge for getting ready for the climb but don't drop anything down the gap at the back; you won't get it back for a long time.
There were a few drips of water on the second pitch of Orion Direct but the snow and ice were amazing to climb on. Very little debris was dislodged all day apart from me kicking out substantial ledges at all the best belay spots (for 60m ropes!). The snow is solid but not brittle and there is lots of ice for excellent protection and belays. We had fabulous views all day and we were first onto the route. There was a team going up Zero Gully but it felt like we had the whole face to ourselves. Orion Direct is always a brilliant climb and I will never get tired of it.
Of the other ice climbs, Zero Gully, Point Five Gully, Observatory Buttress and The Curtain were climbed today. I'm sure there were others climbed as well. It looked like Astral Highway was fat, Slav Route looked cool, Hadrian's Wall Direct, Tower Scoop, Smith's Route, The White Line, all the grade IV gullies in Coire na Ciste, Waterfall Gully and Compression Crack and many climbs on the Little Brenva Face all looked really good. NE Buttress was climbed today with a snowy and easy looking traverse to the First Platform, Tower Ridge, Ledge Route and Castle Ridge were all climbed. The snow is solid everywhere which makes travel really easy but take care on the steep slopes such as descending into Coire Leis or if you come down Number Four Gully. If you slip and slide you'll go a very long way. Looks like it will stay cold all through the weekend and next week. Whoop, whoop!
There are some outstanding slots to climb in Glen Coe. Crypt Route is the most impressive but there's also Crowberry Gully Left Hand, Raven's Gully and Dalmation Couloir. With climbing conditions on the turn today, John and I went to try Dalmation Couloir and we came away with an amazing experience of adventure!
Yesterday's thaw triggered lots of cornices to fall off and some very large avalanches. Crowberry Gully avalanched way past the Waterslide boulder and Coire Altruim avalanched right down to the lairig. Crown walls were visible all along the foot of the crag on Stob Coire Altruim and the debris from at least four separate slides was spread out across many hundreds of metres at the foot of the coire. Today it had not re-frozen properly and the snow was pretty soft and wet. At 925m there was a thin crust but certainly not enough to hold body weight. However, the snow in Dalmation Couloir was really quite useable and I even placed an ice screw at the start of the climb.
The first pitch had some steep ice and mixed moves into a bay underneath the first chockstone. This was fun to climb around and led to snow going all the way into a brilliant cave. The cave was well banked out at the entrance with a 2m drop into the cave. Some beautiful ice pillars were standing on the floor of the cave but they were not needed as belay anchors thankfully.
The steep bridging out of the cave was great fun and the steep snowy groove from there to the top was easy to climb but the firm snow was blocky and some of the blocks were not well attached to the cliff. So I tried to bridge the gap rather than just climb the snow and made it to the top without anything (or me) falling off. We got to the top after climbing a nice snow crest into warm sunshine and stunning voews of snow covered mountains in all directions. The snow cover is amazing right now and tomorrow, after a hard frost, it should be much better well frozen. Hopefully.
For soft snow to turn into solid snow-ice it needs to get really wet first, then freeze straight afterwards. Today, all the snow at all levels got a really good soaking and tomorrow it will start to re-freeze. In fact it looks like it will just get colder for the rest of this week and, chances are, for the rest of this month as well. So, be very happy that we endured a soggy wet day today with water running down the rocks, dripping into sleeves and hoods. Embrace the fact that your boots are soaked through and you got through several pairs of gloves. It was the first stage in a process that will give us amazing climbing and walking conditions very soon.
John and I went to Coire an t'Sneachda to escape the worst of the rain and stay very well clear of the cornices that would be dropping of various crags back home. The rocks were pretty black but there was enough snow and mushy ice on The Haston Line with a finish up Yukon Jack to give us some climbing. There was a suprising number of people in the coire and on the crag climbing various routes. It's a strangely British thing that we go climbing in the rain in winter. It was kind of fun too!
Sally and Grahame bagged another great Munro today, this time it was Aonach Beag from Glen Nevis. This is an imposing summit that is often traverse along with Aonach Mor just behind Nevis Range ski area. Taking the gondola makes it quite a simple hike over the flat featureless plateau of Aonach Mor and a short climb up for the col to Aonach Beag. However, from Steall at the head of Glen Nevis it is a far more rugged and wild climb with a lot more work and navigation involved.
On the map it looked like it would be under not such a great depth of snow cover with the recent wind blowing over the ridges. However, this proved not to be the case and there was quite a bit of snow to plough through. It was a bright morning though and the views back over the Mamores were spectacular. It warmed up slowly during the day and the cloud came down. Tonight we will have light rain to the summits and it will be a soggy and cloudy day tomorrow. By the mid-week though we are forecast frosty nights and sunny days so the snow will freeze and the winter walking and climbing will be amazing!
If you haven't heard yet, there is an amazing depth of soft snow covering the mountains of Scotland right now. Yesterday some people were turned back from Ben Nevis at the Red Burn due to a big cornice running up and down the far side of the gully that holds the burn. With 50cm of windslab sitting on a 10cm thick layer of grauple in the slope underneath the cornice they decided not to try to bash a way through. Ben Nevis will always be there and it is best to come back on another day rather than push on regardless of the hazard in front of you. It's the first time I have heard of Ben Nevis being impossible due to the volume of snow and a cornice at the half way point but that's what is so fun about Scottish winters. You never know what you're going to get!
So instead of Ben Nevis we had two Abacus Mountain Guides teams walk up Beinn a'Chaorainn, a brilliant Munro just past Roy Bridge on the way to Laggan. The normal access is from Roughburn and the first top is climbed by a south west facing ridge. Since this ridge faces the wind we have had that brought all the recent snow we thought it would be well enough scoured to walk up. Once on the summit ridge the soft sbnow shopuld not be too heavy going as well. This worked out reasonably but there was still quite an element of trail breaking to get up to the tops. We are certainly earning our dinner these days. We'll all have very well trained legs by the end of the winter!
It was a breezy day with some cloud and a few showers but also some very nice clear spells to wenjoy the views. Tomorrow will be slightly warmer with a thaw to much higher levels than recently and with some light rain. This will settle the snow pack and firm it up slowly, especially when it cools down again next week, so that hopefully we will not need to do quite so much wading.
Sally and Mike were both in Glen Coe today. Sally was walking on Buachaille Etive Beag with Grahame who has a few winter Munros on his list to complete. With so much snow on the hills at the moment, it is tricky working out where to walk that does not involve many hours of seriously hard work wading through deep snow. West and South facing slopes seem to be mostly OK so they went to the wee Buachaille and got on fine (mostly).
The path from the Coffin Route Cairn goes up the west facing side of the col between the two Munros and this proved to be OK. The climb up to the northerly Munro was also OK but the climb up to the southerly Munro (Stob Dearg) which is a north facing ridge had a very fine snow crest and deep snow! The clouds cleared a little and there was a bit of a view. The weather was generally dry though and a bit warmer than it has been recently so it was a fine day to bag a couple of Munros.
Mike was climbing with Nigel on a route called Trumpeting Elephants. It's likely you have not heard of it but it's next to White Rhino. Still no idea? White Rhino was climbed in 1988 by Mal Duff and they saw an avalanche in a place you would expect never to see an avalanche. So they named the climb White Rhino due to it being very rare and like a big heavy white thing charging down at you. Trumpeting Elephants is right next to it and a little easier at grade III. See if you can work out where the routes are!
Another 20cm or so of fresh snow fell today and was blown around by the strong SW wind creating even more very deep drifts and general cover of snow. Skis would have been very useful for Rintje and me to get to Far Eastern Buttress in Coire nan Lochan and we would have had a wonderful deep powder descent as well. However we were on foot and up to our waists in soft snow. A few other people followed us but did not manage to get much higher at all. Lots of people climbed The Zig Zags and Zig Zags Direct and some of those went along Gearr Aonach to descend the corrie like we did.
We climbed Eastern Slant which is nice right now. There is some ice on the climb and some good snow so the climbing is pretty simple. The buttress sticks out far from any slopes with avalanche hazard above and there is a pretty secure approach to the crag as well. So even though it faces east it was a safe enough place to climb. Descending to the south of the crag worked out fine but not being able to see the angle of the slope in front of us did make me very cautious. However it all went well and we waded down the coire having had another world class adventure. The climbing was a nice part of it but mostly, just being up in the corrie with all that snow was pretty cool.
For the last two days I have been working for Plas y Brenin on an MIC Assessment Course. The Mountaineering Instructor Certificate (MIC) is the highest UK based climbing and mountaineering qualification and it's a priviledge to be able to work on an assessment with such an experienced team of other assessors. Yesterday we went to a venue I have never been too as well, Sron na Creise which is omn the other side of the Glen Etive road to Stob Dearg, Buachaille Etive Mor. This was the first of two client days and with another fall of fresh snow all the way down to sea level it was always going to be a tricky day.
We found a few pitches of fun climbing close to the two ice climbs described in the guidebook. We were not on ice but we had some nice mixed terrain leading up to three huge boulders. A swift abseil back down and a walk across the very wet moor got us back to the road right on time. As it turned out, the weather was very good and we soaked up the expansive view right across Rannoch Moor, down Glen Etive and, of course, across at Buachaille Etive Mot. We also saw avalanche debris at 500m big enough to ruin your day if you got caught up in it. The wind was blowing lots of loose snow around creating quite a bit of wind slab. Other Abacus Teams were climbing The Zig Zags, Ruth's Rib on Aonach Mor West face and Pinnacle Face Route on B Buttress, Aonach Dubh West Face. Everyone found soft snow and windslab!
Today was rather different weather. Very strong winds and a rise in temperature with precipitation for a good bit of the day made it even more tricky to climb anything. The Zig Zags on Gearr Aonach was a good and popular choice and we used the shelter to teach all sorts of things about winter anchors and belays. It was a wet day at this altitude and we got pretty soggy around the edges so we went back down at a reasonable time. The wind had dropped by the afternoon and we even saw a glimpse of blue sky. The thaw did not go very high or last very long so don't expect the snow to have settled much high up.
So we have an amazing cover of snow now on all the mountains in Lochaber. The Zig Zags had thigh deep drifts at the start of the climbing and there is lot sof windslab around as well. Route choice is going to be tricky for a while and it would be worth staying on ridges and buttresses for a while as well as having a really good idea of what is above you. Thanks to both Matt and Mark for looking after me over the last two days, you'll both be great mountaineering instructors.
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.