The students on the Certificate in Outdoor Leadership Couirse at West Highland College were down to do a two day MTB expedition today and tomorrow. However, snow cover down to sea level, a temperature well below zero at sea level and ice forming everywhere it was decided that we should reconsider. So, instead, we made use of the exceptionally cold weather right now and started their winter walking training. This being the first day out walking in winter there was an element of faff before we got going. However, the team were on it and we got out to walk up Creag Dubh next to Roy Bridge pretty soon.
The snow covering everywhere down to sea level and we had a bit more last night. It's not that deep, th egrass and heather are sticking out the top of it still and the ground is not frozen underneath until you get up to about 600m. So we had a nice wade through soft snow on soft turf most of the way up to the top where we found the most expansive views of the glens and peaks in their winter coat. We put on the crampons and went for a stomp around, spotted some wind blown snow and discussed signs to se on the journey that there might be wind slab building, and generally looked after ourselves in the very cold weather.
The cold weather has of course been growing ice in all the drainage lines such as Beinn Udlaidh, Eilde Gorge, The Organ Pipes and gullies such as Waterfall Gully and Garadh Gully on Ben Nevis. The climbs are not fat by any standard but there is ice climbing to be enjoyed and we have a few more days of cold weather to enjoy yet to come.
For the last three days, Al Halewood and I have been working with students and staff at West Highland College getting them ready for the winter. We had a day inside on Wednesday going over all sorts of theory about what to expect, what the hazards are, avalanche awareness, human factors and decision making. We went through the very excellent Be Avalanche Aware process which I recommend everyone to study up on and to follow. Along with the theort we did some practical exercises for the students to work through and gave them some real world methods of following the advice such as making sure everyone knows the avalanche hazard and what the route is, giving everyone the chance to voice any concerns and to vocalise everything that you see, giving the right to veto to anyone in the group and making a Ullyses contract about places not to go to.
Yesterday during Storm Caroline we went into the Lost Valley to make sure we stayed out of the worst of the wind. We did get the ice axes out on a steep grass slope too! Then we went to the ice wall in the Ice Factor for some climbing coaching! Today was much more wintry after th etemperature dropped dramatically yesterday and the snow started to build up. We went into Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis and found some good old frozen now and plenty of pillows of fresh snow and windslab.
Since the rocks were wet yesterday when the temperature dropped super quickly they were icy today. With a covering of soft useless snow it was fairly tortuous moving around in the coire. The great ridges will be the same right now, slippery icy rocks with soft snow on them, so expect them to take a long time and to be pretty heavy going. There is some rime on the steeper rocks and ice has been growing very quickly. There is lots of water in the crags after the rain earlier this week and it is freezing fast in the -10C temperture on the summit. A team climbed Number Three Gully Buttress today which had a really nice pitch of ice at he start. Green Gully was complete as well but, to be clear, it is definitely not grade IV at the moment, nor guaranteed to be good ice in it! It is a good indicator of things to come though.
So the students and staff from the college had a great preparation for the winter and the crags have also had a very good preparation for the winter to come. The rocks are cold, ice is quick to form and snow is starting to build up. The MWIS forecast says that the ground is frozen from sea level upwards but don't read this as saying the turf is frozen everywhere. It is not frozen everywhere but it will be very soon in this cold weather!
Moving up to the next grade can feel like a daunting prospect, or sometimes an impossible leap. Much of the time the barrier is in our heads but there are also some practical steps you can take to reach the next level in your winter climbing.
To get used to placing protection on harder climbs and in more difficult positions, when you are climbing at your current grade place protection in tricky places. You know you can climb at this grade and you can place protection in comfortable places. As well as this, stop on the steeper, trickier sections and place protection. Don’t power through the crux; instead stop half way through it and place an ice screw or a nut. This will give you practice in placing protection in more difficult places which is what it will feel like on the harder climb. Make sure you are relaxed and slick at placing the protection. If it does not work you can just carry on climbing like you would have done anyway.
In fact, even if you don’t place protection, stopping half way through the tricky section of your current grade is a good idea. Instead of powering through, rushing through the crux to easier ground above, slow down, stop and admire the view. You need confidence in what you are doing and in the position you are in. If you are rushing though the crux you are not ready to move up a grade. If you are relaxed and confident enough to stop and soak up the atmosphere, to admire the view, you are ready to try a harder climb.
You need to trust your protection and belay anchors. You might even need to do a hanging belay on the next grade of climb. So, practice and get confident in your anchors by leaning out on your anchors when you are belaying your buddy. This is a good idea anyway. You do not want any slack rope between you and your anchors if you are belaying off your harness so that there is no chance of a shock load on your anchors if your buddy falls off. So, kick out a nice ledge, stand tall and lean back on your anchors with confidence.
Do your research. Winter climbs come in all shapes and sizes, styles and characters. Choose one that matches your strengths, whether it is ice, mixed or snowed up rock. Find out what it takes to be in optimum condition, where the pitches go, where to belay and where the crux is. Choose a popular climb which is well known, not an esoteric adventure that has only seen one ascent. Make sure it is well known so you can get the information you need and so you know the grade is accurate. You will also be able find out when it has been climbed recently which is quite a reassurance. Making the first ascent of an ice climb each winter is certainly more nerve-wracking than climbing it after many recent ascents.
Having said this, it can be tricky working out what kind of route each one is and therefore what the optimum conditions are. The information is much more available these days though and don’t be afraid to ask around.
Snowed up rock climbs often come in to condition first each winter. These are solid rock climbs that just need a quick freeze along with rime and snow to make the rocks white. Savage Slit and Fallout Corner in the Northern Coires of Cairngorm, Slab Route on Ben Nevis, Scabbard Chimney and Crest Route on Stob Coire nan Lochan are all pretty good examples.
Mixed routes take a little longer to freeze up properly and should not be attempted until the turf is frozen solid. These routes are climbed on rimed up rock, frozen turf and bits of ice all mixed up together. Climbing mushy turf is very unpleasant and damages the turf for future ascents. Taliballan on Stob Coire an Laoigh in the Grey Coires, Western Chimney Route on Bidean nam Bian and Morwind on Aonach Mor are all good examples of turfy mixed climbs.
Some mixed climbs take a bit more frozen snow-ice to be at their best. Snow-ice is formed by snow on the route being warmed by a thaw so that it goes wet but does not melt away, then refreezing into solid, aerated ice that is brilliant to climb on. Thompson’s Route on Ben Nevis is just like this. It’s a wonderful icy mixed route with bits of snow-ice and bits of rock in a chimney that is a dream to climb when the snow-ice has built up but very tricky beforehand.
When the snow-ice has had more time to form and just the right combination of snowfall and thaw freeze cycles (often not until February or March) the West Coast classic ice climbs can be at their best. Orion Direct, Hadrian’s Wall Direct, Point Five Gully and Zero Gully are all climbs to aspire to once you are confident on grade V ice and you can climb 300m or 400m in a few short hours!
When we get a sharp cold snap there are ice climbs that form in natural drainage lines. Whole venues such as Beinn Udlaidh is a perfect example of a venue full of ice climbs that require a very good freeze of a week or two but very little snow or thaw freeze cycles. The climbs here are of strong but hard water ice that is secure to climb on (solid ice screws as well as ice axe placements) but steep and hard work to place your picks. Make sure you sharpen your picks and crampons before you go!
Some winter climbs are good in any conditions and it is well worth knowing about these. If you climb the same route in very different conditions you will learn about how the conditions change the climbing and the feel of the route. It might also give you some good climbing in marginal conditions or bad weather. North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor is a great example. The grade is much the same if it is just rimed up, buried on soft snow or if it has a line of ice in the chimney and it is always great fun. South West Ridge of Douglas Boulder on Ben Nevis has become a very popular climb recently for the same reasons.
Climb with climbers who are better than you. You will find it easier to move up a grade if you have seconded a few climbs at that grade and you know what it feels like. In fact, if you can get a buddy to lead you up a climb that you want to lead yourself you will have much more chance of success. Much of the difficulty in moving up a grade is psychological so take away the concerns over route finding, where to belay, what kind of protection to take with you as well as the climbing itself by climbing it with a stronger climbing buddy. Even though leading a route you have seconded makes it much easier to lead, you will still have the confidence of having lead at that grade which will carry you forward to your first onsight lead of that grade.
Serve an apprenticeship and move through the grades steadily. If you climb one grade IV route you are not automatically ready to climb a grade V. Even if you find the grade IV straight forward you should climb several more at that grade before moving up the grade. Experience is earned through spending time on lots of climbs in different locations, on different days and in different conditions. You learn how to deal with many, many different situations and these help you cope with new situations that you will undoubtedly face.
“There is more to ice climbing than climbing ice”. In fact, the techniques of winter climbing are only a small part of climbing winter routes. Be prepared to build up a huge bank of experience by climbing lots and lots of routes. You will learn all sorts of tricks from other climbers, about dealing with the harsh weather, about how the weather affects the climbing conditions, about avalanche safety and navigation, and about how to cope with all the little (and some major) things that don’t go completely right every time!
Sort your system so that you stay warm and dry. We all have different preferences of gloves and clothes but a system that works well for you is essential. Any fool can be cold, hungry and dehydrated but all these will reduce your performance. Play around with different gloves and carry spares for when you get wet. Use a belay jacket, one between the two of you if you are swinging leads. A jacket that fits over your helmet, that does not pull out from under your harness and that does not hang over your harness covering up your gear makes a huge difference to your climbing.
Find food that is easy to eat on a belay ledge and something to drink in something you can drink from easily. If you can arrive at the foot of the crux pitch feeling warm, dry and well fed you will be in a much better position to climb it. The concept of marginal gains really makes sense to me in winter climbing. Making sure your zips are done up really can help you climb the next grade!
Last time I climbed Taliballan we all used wrist leashes, it was so long ago. It must be over ten years ago in fact, well past the time after which I can call it an onsight again! So Louisa and I went for the long walk up to Stob Coire nan Laoigh today in the Grey Corries and we had a great time. We knew the crag was well rimed and the turf frozen since Lou and Guy climbed there a couple of days ago, and it was looking even better today. The northerly wind we have had for a few days now with some snow showers and cloud down on the crag has frozen the turf solid, rimed up the rocks and even formed a few dribbles of ice.
Taliballan climbs a steep corner system with bulges and great ledges for belaying on. The crux is a corner on the first pitch with a crack that is just too big for comfortable torquing. It's like an off-width torquing crack. However the quartzite rock is generally pretty helpful with thin cracks for picks, plenty of chockstones and positive ledges for frontpoints. Despite having some steep sections, a good bit of cunning will make the moves relatively amenable.
For a 70m climb, there is an awful lot of climbing. Most routes have some hard sections and some easy sections. On this crag and especially on this route, every move is a winner. 70m of climbing feels like much more. Having said this, there is no need to do it in five pitches at the guidebook says. The first two pitches run together very well, as do the third and fourth pitches. Then it's just one pitch to the top.
It looks like the temperature will go up during tomorrow and we will get a bit of a thaw over the weekend. It does not look like it will be a turbo thaw though, no pineapple express. Instead it will get the snow wet and provide a bit more water to form ice when the temperature drops again in the second half of next week, fingers crosed!
Douglas Boulder has a collection of very good mixed climbs that do not rely on ice or neve at all. When the wind is strong or conditions higher up, these can be brilliant outes to enjoy. Having climbed Gutless and Jackknife a couple of times it was about time I got onto Cutlass so that's what Sally and I did today. It was ace!
Cutlass climbs a huge corner which is really obvious from below. There is a slabby ramp to get to the start of it and you are straight into the over-hanging crux moves from this belay ledge to get into the corner. With no ice in the big corner crack apart from a good few bits of verglas, there were plenty of chockstones and a couple of thin cracks to get the picks into. Tiny foot placements on the left wall intersperse the better foot ledges in the corner and the moves in between are fantastic. There was plenty of protection today so it was just about ideal conditions for climbing. At the top of the corner there are a few turf moves and the turf was fine to use, not solid but frozen.
The third pitch gets you right into a chimney from which it is not as hard as it looks to escape onto easier ledges and the SW Ridge of Douglas Boulder. When Scott climbed this route a few years ago he found the corner crack to be choked with ice which he used for his picks all the way with his feet out on the rock ledges on either side. The protection was pretty spaced for him since he didn't have ice screws with him! It just goes to show how varied these climbs can be. Today was snowed up rock with a bit of turf at the top. In a couple of weeks it could be very icy.
Ken and Andy climbed Slab Route in the Trident Buttresses which is also a very good early season climb to do. Again, there is some turf to get onto the slab that needs to be frozen and the ridge above the climb to the plateau is superb. It looks like we will get a few cold snowy days coming our way. The snow came down to sea level while we were climbing which made the drive back down the forest track the trickiest part of our day!
Victor (my springer spaniel) and I went for a quick bike ride up towards the CIC Hut this afternoon to see what's what and what's white. Snow fell down to 400m last night after a warmer day yesterday with rain at all levels. We did not get as much as further east in the country but the crags and the tops are covered in a white sheet (not quite a blanket and certainly no where near a duvet). It stayed cold all day though and there were puddles of ice on the path at 600m above sea level. The steep cliffs near the CIC Hut have dribbles of ice on them too showing it has been cold enough to freeze the drips and start to freeze the turf.
The great gullies only have a little snow in them and they will not be fun to climb yet. We need much more snow to build up first. The great ridges will be fun to climb with soft snow on the rocks but no build up yet to smooth off the ridge. They will be slow going, especially if you don't know the route yet. The best climbing will be on steep, rocky mixed routes such as Gargoyle Wall, Sioux Wall and Strident Edge. All of these were climbed over the last couple of weekends and none of them require any frozen turf. It looks like we will get another cold weekend and I'm sure there will be more people out climbing these modern, early season classics.
It was a cold and bright weekend on the West Coast with snow on the tops above 600m or so. There's not a great build up of snow but with a cold wind from the north and cloud hitting the crags we had some rime growing on the rocks. Above about 1100m there was enough white rime and snow on the crags to make them sufficiently wintry for some climbing. The turf is not well frozen at all and there's plenty of loose rocks; typical very early season conditions.
So, choosing a solid, rocky route with no turf that's high on the mountain is a good bet for the best climbing. Number Three Gully Buttress fits the criteria and Sioux Wall and Babylon were climbed as well as Tower Ridge and Ledge Route. It still amazes me that climbers can jump on Sioux Wall as their first winter climb of the season but that's the high standard of climber that Scotland (and a summer of training) produces!
We will get more snow tomorrow before it warms up and melts it all away for the rest of the week. It was a nice start to the winter though. What will the next six months bring for us? Lots of adventures, however much snow we get!
The first proper snow of the winter has arrived. We woke to a little snow lying on the tops above 900m on Saturday morning and we had a few showers during the day that brought the snow line down to 600m. Over night we had more substantial snow falling down to 600m but today was bright and sunny.
Tomorrow will bring wet and warmer weather with trong winds and the freezing level rising to 2200m or so. This is only temporary though. The forecast is for colder weather for the rest of the week so we should see a little snow building up above 600m and the ground will start to cool down.
On your marks, get set ...... go!
What a wonderful day for biking at Laggan Wolf Trax and what a great team of students from West Highland College UHI to be riding with. Top MTB coach Emma Holgate and I were working with students on the adventure degree courses who want to up skill their bike riding and start thinking about MTB leadership. Yesterday we were at Nevis Range riding the trails and improving braking technique, body position on the bikes and weight shift followed by a whole lot of cornering. We managed to stay dry just about all day yesterday, but today it was full on sunshine all day.
We warmed up on the green at Wolf Trax, an under-used gem of a skinny single track trail. If you can stay on the trail around all the wee corners at any speed you are doing well. The orange jump and berm trail has had some work done on the top half which makes the jumps a lot more jumpy and the surface smooth as a smooth thing. We rode both red trails as well with the team dropping the drops and rolling the rocks with ease. Well done team, great riding.
It's been a very long time since I did any walking or climbing in Wales. I have been to a couple of meetings and workshops but the last time I set foot on a hillside in Wales was on my BMG summer test, about 15 years ago. So I was very excitied to go to Snowdonia to be part of the Girl Guiding Walking Week. I was running a Summer Mountain Leader Assessment Course and it kept me on my toes doing it in an area I only had distant memories of.
We got off to a very wet start! Monday was wet all day with drizzle and persistent light rain. It has been very wet for the last few weeks and the ground and streams were full of water so we were all soaked through in a few hours. We walked up the brilliant Cnicht and discussed emergency response, practiced self-rescue and went back to base in Nant Gwynant for some stream crossings. However with the streams being in spate condition we decided to leave the practical stream crossing for the next day!
Carl took the team to Tremadog on the second day to avoid the winds gusting to 50mph. They stayed dry(ish) and covered all the aspects of safeguarding people in awkward, steep terrain, route choice, group management and emergency ropework to safeguard individual group members and the leader. No planned use of the rope is covered in the syllabus or scope of this award but mountain leaders need to know how to deploy one if an emergency situation arrises.
The main part of the assessment is the three day expedition with two wild camps. We walked from our base and went round the west side of Snowdon before reaching the summit and returning by the Watkin path on the final day. The first day was spent on Yr Aran navigating to lots of little wrinkles in the contour lines. We found a lovely camp site near the disused works and the llyns at the col to the north of Yr Aran and this gave us access to Cwm Llan for several hours walking around in the dark finding more small features on the map.
The weather was definitely getting much better and the second day of the expedition was a bright, dry day with a couple of misty moments as we went round the cwms on the west side of Snowdon. It was another day of continuous concentration finding little contour features and sharing knowledge of the environment we were walking through. There are many similarities between the landscape here and what I am more used to in Scotland. However, the rocks are definitely more slippery in Wales!
Our last day was planned and led by the candidates with the single task of getting back to base by 2.30pm. We went over Snowdon and went above the cloud just before reaching the top. With the sun shining brightly down into the mist below us we were treated to a brilliant brocken spectre, the first that most of the candidates had seen. Snowdon was at its best, basking in the sunshine above the wandering clouds and it was a fitting finale to a great few days. All four of the candidates passed and it was a pleasure to spend a week in their company. Well done to Sarah, Mark, Jo and Andrew. You will be an inspiration to the groups you lead in the mountains.
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.