In 18 days of walking up Grahams and Corbets around Fort William in the last three weeks, Jim met other people on the hills on only 2 of those days! There is lots of space up here and plenty of hills to enjoy walking up, down and around. Today was just the same. We went to Cluanie Inn and walked up the delightful Munro Ciste Dubh and saw nobody all day. Even with the Easter holidays and the town being quite busy, there is lots of space to get away from it all and find a bit of peace and quiet, some breathing space.
Ciste Dubh is a very nice peak which is found above a gentle coire directly north of Cluanie Inn. We walked up the coire on the vehicle track near the stream, rather than the old stalkers path up the slope to the east. It seems to be an easier walk on the track even when it starts to disappear. We got to the big, three way col and climbed the steep slope above to find the ridge that goes all the way to the summit, getting more and more narrow as it does so. There is a nice path though to take away from the long steep slopes down both sides and the wind was blowing on the other side, leaving us in a bit of shelter. The rain held off until we were on the way down too.
Back on Ben Nevis Tom, Tom and Freddie climbed Castle Ridge on nice dry rock in the main, and kept out of the stronger wind. They stayed off the snow today, but to reach the summit you need to walk over big patches of snow still on the Pony Track. We've had brilliant weather, even if it has been windy and cold. Today was a cloudy day making poor visibility on the top and someone made a mistake on the navigation to get down from Ben Nevis and ended up at the top of the cliffs above Coire Eoghainn. He needed Lochaber MRT to help him back onto the path and to get down. A little practice with a compass and some pacing to measure distances is all you need to keep on the right track when the visibility is poor.
This week Abacus Mountain Guides have looked after groups walking up Ben Nevis as the first of their three peaks challenge, taught climbing skills on Curved Ridge, practiced for the Alps on the Zig Zags and Stob Coire nan Lochan, all in fabulous sunshine and light winds. The mornings have been frosty with the snow frozen hard but once the sun is up its warmth gets to work to soften the snow pretty quickly. Since it is the start of the Easter holidays my children are off so whe Owen asked me to go ski touring with him I jumped at the chance.
We went to the Cairngorms where there is much better snow cover than over west. We walked a short way from the top car park at 600m before we could start skinning up Fiacail a'Choire Cas to point 1141. Hard snow made this tricky as soon as it got steep but once we were on top the snow was already soft in the sunshine. We went over to Stag Rocks and found Diagonal Gully. We'd had a tip off that had been skied and the snow was good all the way to Loch Avon. This is what we found, along with a good few ski tracks leading into and down the gully. The snow was certainly soft for us (someone who also skied it today said it was soft already at 10am) . Great fun skiing all the way down to one of the most impressive places in Scotland, Loch Avon Basin.
It was hot down by the loch with a very alpine feel. The skin back up was mostly on a track but we made a few adjustments due to more rocks revealing themselves with the melting snow. The slopes around Hells Lum crag had soaked up a lot of heat and, sitting on steep heather, made me think about the chance of full depth avalanches, despite the low hazard today. We kept to a route going through rocks to minimise any chance and got up fine but I did hear a slightly wierd whoompfing kind of noise at one point.
A very nice skin across to 1141 and down into the ski area got us back to the van. There are plenty of rocks to avoid, both going uphill and downhill. We certainly thought it was very much worth it toay and it will be good for several days more too. A trip up to Ben MacDui would be excellent and there are lots of other routes to enjot. Pinnacle Gully and Y Gully would not be much fun but I did not get a look into Castlegates Gully to see what it was like. Back home, there is still gully skiing on Ben Nevis but not much elsewhere. There is, however, great rock climbing in the warm sunshine, biking on (mostly) dry trails, brilliant walking in the glen and on the summits. Get out and enjoy the wonderful weather if you can.
Walking up Ben Nevis at this time of year can catch out some people. It looks and feels like spring in the glens, the flowers are coming out and there is blossom on the trees. The summit of Ben Nevis is still covered in snow though and it is a big deal reaching the summit, requiring winter boots, crampons, ice axes and navigation skills to deal with the white out on the snow where the trail is covered up. Our team of fantastic women from Birmingham hired a guide through us today and Andy helped them to reach the summit safely and all the way back down again.
The walk up the Pony Track is all on snow from corner five at 1050m above sea level. The freezing level was above the summit but the team was very happy to hav the crampons to make it easier on the snow. It was not hard frozen but the snow was firm packed and slippery. Our guided group walks start on Wednesday 1st May and take place every Wednesday and Sunday from then until the end of September. We're expecting snow on the ground for the first few and Sunday 5th May is already sold out. Get in touch if you'd like to join a group to get some help and support for your ascent and to learn a lot about the environment and history of the place.
Hard frozen snow, dry cold air and great company made for a very nice climb of Ledge Route today on Ben Nevis. Brooke and Sean are over from Seattle in the US for a few days in Scotland. Being strong mountaineers they wanted to experience Ben Nevis by the North Face. With worstening weather forecast we went for Ledge Route so that we would be off the summit in good time. After the cold weekend the snow was frozen solid and we made very good progress, reaching the summit before 1pm and back down by Coire Leis before the rain came in this afternoon.
We put crampons on at the foot of the snow in the run-out of Number Five Gully. The snow was hard frozen and the steps made in the thaw last week made it easy and secure to walk up the snow. We thought about taking the crampoins off at the start of the narrow rocky ridge. However, we kept them on and were glad to have them on most of the wy. There are just a few rocky sections, most of the route is on snow, including the slab low down on the route. We had a few light snow showers but the air and the rock were really dry so we stayed warm and comfortable all day.
On the summit there is about 1m depth of snow and the slope down towards the CMD Arete is also very well covered. The slope down into Coire Leis is quite serious so we took it very steadily. Hard frozen snow on a steep angle leads to rocks at the bottom of the slope. We followed good snow all the way to the Allt a'Mhuilinn underneath NE Buttress and took off the crampons there. The cold spell will stay with us for a few days more. It might officially be spring but it is very wintry on top - winter equipment and skills are absolutely required, no April fool!
Laura, Ryan, Jon and I had a good time walking up Ben Nevis today. It was a bit windy to start but on the summit there was very little wind, and we had the summit to ourselves. The cloud was down to Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe so the views were not great from windy corner all the way to the top and back down again. It was quite wet in the cloud and the guys did a great job of staying motivated. We got to the top in a very good time, imagined the views, and headed back down before we got too cold.
There are patches of snow on the trail from corner number two, and continuous snow on the trail from corner number five (1050m) to the top. This means the snow is covering the trail and it is not possible to see it to follow it. There were several other groups out trying to reach the summit but very few actually made it. Most decided, very sensibly, that they should turn around once the snow covered the trail completely and go back down.
If you want to get to the summit when there is snow on the ground and cloud on the summit, you will have to do some careful navigation. The skills of navigation you will need are to follow your location on the map so you know where you are all the time and to be able to use a compass to make sure you go in the correct direction. For this, you need to be able to work out the bearing, put it on your compass and then be able to use your compass to walk in that direction. In addition you will need to be able to measure the distance you travel, probably by counting the number of paces you take. If you already know how many you take to walk 100 you can measure the distance traveled.
These are core skills of navigation that can be learned by studying books, looking online or by hiring a good instructor. Without these skills, you should not expect (or even try) to reach the summit of Ben Nevis in the mist with snow on the ground. If you get the navigation wrong you are likely to go very badly wrong - all the sides of Ben Nevis apart from the one where the trail is have very steep ground or very big cliffs. It susprised me today how many people didn't expect the whiteout on top and didn't have the navigation skills required to deal with it. It was reasuring, though, that all these people turned back before they got too far into the white room to turn back.
This winter has not been a classic for skiing. The snow has been unreliable and there has not been very much of it. There have been some very good days though and today was one of them. After a good amount of fresh snow at the weekend Ian and I started our Scottish Steep Skiing week at Nevis Range. We did a lap of The Goose to get a feel for the snow which told us the snow felt very good indeed. A smooth cover of grippy fresh snow on the smooth old base meant we were carving turns all the way down.
Ian has done a lot of skiing over the years and has been into the back corries of Aonach Mor a few times as well. We went down Winger Wall to see how we got on first, talking about how to approach the cornice, assess the snow and find and the best snow for skiing. We made a really nice run down and I took the first fall of the day, losing my ski to a long slide dowen the slope as I did so! We had to boot back up a bit to get back onto the traverse line around to the front of the hill again. The traverse is all on snow to Rob Roy and most of the way back to the gondola from there with a couple of fundred metres of walking to Alpha.
Next up was Yellow Belly for a steeper run and more of a drop in over the cornice before our third lap of the backs down Easy Gully. This is a step up with a bigger and steeper drop in followed by a narrow gully for 50m or so before it opens out into the coire. Once you are in it feels fine but looking down from the edge of the cornice is really quite intimidating. The first run is always the most challenging! The snow in the gully was brilliant and the run down to the lochain was really nice too. So, a great start to four days of steep skiing and a good enough forecast to give us hope for some more brilliant days to come.
Ruth and I had a very nice, dry day on Buachaille Etive Mor yesterday. We climbed North Buttress with some useful firm snow and found the top section, and the top of Coire na Tullach, scoured clear of soft snow. It warmed up gently during the day and carried on doing so last night so this morning was a bit soggy from the start and we knew we would not get the same firm snow.
We went to climb Castle Ridge to keep clear of any falling ice or cornices. In a thaw there is always something falling down so it's best not to spoend too much time in a gully. Castle Ridge was very nice although the snow was very soft and wet. Every other step sank in, and upwards progress was quite challenging at some points. There is a lot of snow though and the rocks are very well covered over making some of the route easier. The first tricky corner is much shorter than it can be. The main crux pitch, up the flake chimney hanging over the north face, is quite rattly. It seemed like some of the flakes are more hollow sounding than I remember them being previously. It might just be that they are more loose after the thaw and they will bed in again. Or it might be that they are actually getting looser.
The ridge above all the steep sections was lovely with some snow on it. This is a great section of very narrow ridge in a very impressive position. We made it to the top in very quick time and walked past the Castle Gullies. Both are just about full but the bottom chockstone of South Castle Gully is not properly covered over. This is an amazing run on skis but, right now, make sure you stop before the bottom chockstone to check it out first!
Ruth and I went up to Carn Dearg and down Ledge Route. After the snowfall at the weekend nobody had been up or down Ledge Route and we had to wade down thigh deep snow all the way! At least it will be easier if you go up the way now - it would have been a mission without any trail at all. All of Ledge Route is very well covered over with snow and we found it very easy to walk down. We did not hang around in the bottom of Number Five Gully where there was yet more fresh avalanche debris. The snow cover goes all the way down to the CIC Hut and the current thaw is not very vigorous so I think we will not lose too much snow before it freezes again at the weekend.
What is your image of a base jumper? Right at the end of January I went to Skye with Tim Howell, a base jumper and alpinist who is also a Jottnar Pro Team member. I had no idea what to expect. What would he be like? Base jumpers are all nuts aren't they? We did not have much of a plan or fixed ideas about what we would do, but I tried to go with an open mind, keen to learn as always. We also had Brodie Hood on the film camera and Hamish Frost on the stills camera with Donald King looking after them; we had a very talented team. The weather forecast was superb. It was going to be fun.
Road traffic chaos had an impact on what we did on the first day. Snow down to sea level on Skye and stuck campervans made it impossible to get to some places. We did manage to get to Old Man of Storr though and spotted a good looking cliff. So, we set off to try Skye's first base jump and, possibly, Skye's first ski-base jump. The landscape around the many pinnacles of The Storr is amazing, unlike any other place in the UK. It was covered in sparkling soft snow with dazzling sunshine and deep shadows. It was also quite windy which is not good for base jumping.
If the cliff is over 40m high and vertical then a base jump is quite viable. If it is between 30m and 40m it is more difficult, and less than 30m is too small. The cliff we found was 100m high and vertical. By leaning over the edge and dropping a small stone, you can see where it lands and use a laser range finder to measure the distance. You also need to consider whether an exit left or right is viable or a hazard, which way the wind will take you, if there is any turbulent air down from the top of the cliff and what the landing will be like. There are different ways to deploy your chute as well, depending on the height of the cliff. If it is more than 100m, a bit of free fall might be possible before the chute is opened. There's a lot to consider, and it is all considered very carefully, fully and calmly. The margins might be small but they are measured very accurately.
The wind dropped, Tim did his final checks of equipment, and made the first ski base jump on Skye. In a way it was a bit of an anti-climax. This is a good thing though. There is enough excitement in base jumping - you don't want any more drama by things not going perfectly smoothly. It's not the crazy-jumping-off-stuff pumped-up thing that you might think it is. Tim does a very good job of staying calm, relaxed and thinking straight when every fibre in his being is screaming at him. It's a lot like climbing really but packed into a shorter time frame and more intense as a result.
Next up, we went to the Great Prow of Bla Bheinn. This also has a 100m vertical drop down its front face but is located high on the mountain with the most stunning backdrop of the coire running down to the sea and hills on the far side of the loch. Standing on the edge after all the preparations, Tim asked me to unclip him. This is not something I do comfortably, standing next to a very big cliff. In fact, every part of my training so far has been about keeping people securely attached to the mountain. Tim settled, performed another perfect jump, and had a stunning flight down into the coire. He also had a much shorter walk back to the van than I had!
Our third day was to be securely attached to the mountains, no air time, no jumping off. Despite the temperature on Rannoch Moor being -12 celcius we struggled to find a crag that was white with rime. Down at Bridge of Orchy, the Messiah crag was OK in places and actually had a little ice on it. We got to the last pitch of Promised Land and enjoyed a steep, thin and tenuous pitch of ice climbing. Looking at pictures of this from previous years, the ice can be much fatter and more secure. I placed a thread around a finger fat icicle and another wrist size icicle slightly higher to protect the committing crux moves onto the thicker ice at the top.
Spending any time in our beautiful mountains in such amazing weather is a very rewarding thing to do. Spending this time with friends, learning new ways to experience, with incredible intensity, the vast scale of the landscape is even more rewarding. It's all about appreciating the beauty of wild places, immersing yourself in nature, taking on physical and mental challenges, and being grounded as a result. How you do this is down to you - there are lots of ways to have fun in the mountains. Just make sure you get out and have adventures.
Thank you to Hamish Frost for the exceptional photos. Thank you to Brodie Hood for the film. Thank you to Donald King and Tim Howell for some brilliant days in the mountains.
Climbing Tower Ridge today had all the ingredients of the full Scottish winter experience and I loved every bit of it. John and I chose this most classic of classic climbs on a day with high avalanche hazard, plenty of uncertainty about the climbing conditions, strong winds, snow showers and poor visibility. On the way up my crampon broke just as we got to the crux pitch, still with Tower Gap to cross. On the summit we could see about 10m and all we could see was white; accurate navigation was essential. It's all of these things that make Scottish winter climb such a test, and so rewarding. We both know the climb pretty well, but it was still a fantastic day out.
The high avalanche forecast was mostly for the warm spell with heavy rain during the night. Remember, the forecast period is from 6pm on the day the forecast is put out until 6pm the day afterwards. By the time we got to the start of the climb, the temperature had dropped and the surface of the snow was just starting to freeze, showing us it had started to stabilise at that altitude. So the climb up East Gully of Douglas Gap was quite secure. The snow cover on the ridge is now very good. We made very good progress over the blocks on the ridge since they are well covered with firm enough snow. The down side to this is that protection is harder to find and finding the best route can be tricky.
Higher up, the snow was less affected by the thaw and was not quite so useful. The fallen block chimney is completely filled in and the step around the block is a bit tricky, as is the crux pitch up the Great Tower. Everything is very well rimed up there and there is some ice in the cracks.
On top it was very white as well. The trail is covered in snow of course and the cairns are covered in thick rime so it is very hard to see them until you are very close to them. We pced back from the top of the ridge to find the line of the cairns and then followed 282 on the compass down onto the zig zags of the trail. There is no sign of the trail until below corner 6 at 1100m and we walked down on snow all the way to the half way point at the Red Burn crossing.
The rest of this week is forecast to be quite stormy, especially over night tonight until dawn tomorrow. John and I wanted to do some climbing and get down again fairly early so we went to Buachaille Etive Mor and climbed North Buttress. This is a favourite climb of mine, especially when it is windy. Driving up Glen Coe we had some snow showers down to the road at Lagangarbh but also some breaks in the cloud, some blue sky and a few patches of sunshine. The snow was soft and wet from a very brief but wet thaw last night so we plodded up through deep wet snow to the start of the climbing.
The climbing is on pretty solid rock with no turf required at all. If the snow is frozen it is really quite nice but the snow was all soft today with a crust higher up, so it just got in the way! It was all very white though and the views across Rannoch Moor were spectacular. Every now and then we'd get a blast of wind and a wee shower that sent spindrift down the climb but generally it was very nice.
We climbed straight up the chimneys to the terrace in six lovely pitches. Having been to the summit before we decided to go down a different way and keep out of the wind. Two teams behimnd us meant it might be a bit awkward to abseil down the route so we traversed across the top of Raven's Gully, Cuneiform Buttress and into Great Gully. We carried on traversing slightly downhill to the top of Great Gully Buttress and came down the gully between this and Broad Buttress. This is a grade I gully (does anyone know a name for it?) and when it is full of snow, like today, it makes an easy descent back to the path.
We got back to the van as the heavy snow came on and the wind picked up. Later this evening, naturally triggered avalanches started coming down the gullies and Coire na Tullach. Unfortunately there was another avalanche in Number Five Gully on Ben Nevis this morning which killed three people. There is a high avalanche hazard in Lochaber and in Glencoe now and during tomorrow. It's likely to remain very difficult in the mountains for the rest of this week. If you want to go out, plan very carefully, check the SAIS Avalanche Forecast and make sure you know how to interpret what it says. Take care, play safe.
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.