If you could have only one day on Ben Nevis this could have been a good choice. We had no wind all day, a little light mist to pick out the ridges which cleared away just as we got to the top of Carn Dearg, leaving us in full sunshine above the layer of clouds in beautiful white snow. It was a stunner and a day that Alasdair and Merrith will remember for a long time.
With a few cold nights, ice has been forming in lots of places where water usually runs. The Carn Dearg Cascades near the CIC Hut are looking pretty good and Waterfall Gully, Gemini and The Shield Direct are all close to being fat enough to climb. The Curtain is probably good to climb already but it's certainly not what you'd call fat. Conversely, there is nearly no ice in Vanishing Gully which is at the same altitude but relies on the snow above to thaw and drip water down the gully. We have had no thaw at all above 1000m or so since Christmas so the snow on top is still pretty soft in the shade and where nobody has walked. Below 800m or so there was some rain last night and the frost this morning made a good crusty layer that is easy to walk on.
Up in Coire na Ciste the crags are very white with rime that formed in the strong wind yesterday Where the sun got to it today the rime melted off straight away but the shady crags, which is most of them, are very white and will not have much ice in the cracks at all. Steep mixed climbing is good at the moment. The great ridges have a pretty good cover of snow on them and the going is good, especially where people have climbed before and compressed the snow. Away from the boot tracks it is much heavier going and the big snow gullies will be hard work right now.
So Ledge Route was an excellent choice of climb for today since there was a boot trail, the rocks are covered with snow and there was nobody else there! A few teams went to Douglas Boulder to enjoy the SW and East Ridges as well as Cutlass but there was nobody else we saw on the North Face. Merrith and Alasdair did great on Ledge Route and this was the first day out on crampons for Merrith as well. We had good views on the way up and we even saw what I think was a fogbow, three concentric rainbows made by the cloud that was close to us.
Tomorrow is forecast to be just as good as today with lots of sunshine and very light winds. On Friday the wind will return and stay with us through the weekend but it looks like it will be cold still so there will be some good climbing to enjoy. Have fun!
Donald has tried to climb Raven's Gully a few times and today turned into one more attempt without success. It all looked good on the way up with ice on lots of the rocks and in drainage lines as well as some nice snow-ice leading up to the first crux chockstone. Unfortunately there was no ice right we we needed it and despite trying left and right it was not going to let us past! It is so much worth coming back for though.
There is now quite a bit of ice low down in drainage lines in Glen Coe after a couple of very cold nights. The snow higher up still needs to do a lot of consolidating before it is much use for climbing but if you follow bootprints on a climb the compacted snow is very nice.
Like most people, I have been up the south side of Glen Coe many times but only twice have I been up the north side other than to traverse an t'Aonach Eagach. I have climbed Blue Riband twice (in the space of three days) and I have always been curious about the gullies and ridges that stand out so well above the glen. So, after a hard frost (-8C) and with good snow cover Mick and I went to explore The Chancellor. To be honest, I knew that Donald had been up yesterday so there would be a boot trail to follow and he said it was amazing!
We certainly got our dose of sunshine today. After a short but steep walk in we started off up heathery and mossy ground on ridges and gullies just to the right of the foot of the main ridge. The way to go is relatively straightforward and we were very happy to find the turf and moss very well frozen. There are a couple of steep sections on frozen moss that were fun today but would be terrifying if the moss was soggy. The main steep section is exactly as described in the book - head left around a shelf and back onto the crest before a really nice, and really exposed, pitch of grade IV gets you to a more reasonable angle section, high above Glen Coe.
The last asection up to Am Bodach is just amazing. We had fabulous snow, glorious sunshine, brilliantly narrow snow crest on the ridge and a position that rivals anything in the Alps on a day like today. On a very well frozen day with lots of sunshine this is a brilliant route and a great way for Mick to get his legs working again for the winter of climbing to come! Thanks Donald and John for the trail!
The Lochaber and Lorn Ramblers take rambling to a different level. Being surounded by the best mountains in the country they take full advantage and offer a very active programme of guided walks for members all year round. These walks are not limited to low level ambling. Ramblers groups here very often take on Munros, simple scrambles and winter walks. So it was great fun to be able to spend a day with five members running through some winter skills to get them set up for the winter.
We went to Lagangarbh at the top of Glen Coe and walked up Beinn a'Chrulaiste. This was the first time I have been to the top although I have een up a couple of the scrambles on the side a few times. We had wet snow at the start that got drier and colder and deeper. In fact the fresh snow from last night had been blown by the wind into some very deep drifts and cornices had formed already. This was a great learning point for the team, to see how much snow can be put down in one night, how much it gets blown around and deposited in certain places and what that does to the snow. We had plenty of soft wind slab to deal with.
All the way up was misty and a good test of our navigation. We had a quick play on some steeper slopes and lunch in a group shelter. When we emerged afterwards the clouds had cleared and we got a pretty good view from the summit. This is an amazing view point and I will certainly be back to catch the view on a sunny day some time! Well done to Anne, Trevor, Elizabeth, Joand Alex, you all did brilliantly and it was really fun spending the day with you.
The climbing was great but the snow was terrible. This was Nate's assessment of our climb today and he was spot on. We went to Glen Coe for a change of scene (not that we saw anything much of Ben Nevis yesterday) and climbed North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor. We soon got into the snow which was soft and wet and plentiful. The southerly wind and falling snow yesterday deposited a good cover on the approach walk and the route itself. The snow did make the walk in a bit easier but uncovering the climb was hard won.
Underneath the snow, the rocks were wet but the turf was frozen. In fact, the turf is now wet as well so it has frozen better and is much more useable. We had a few snow showers but not much really and Nate and I enjoyed the stunning views from the climb. The contrast between the bright white snow and the dark glen below was incredible and made the climb feel even bigger than it is. At six pitches with a tricky approach and a bit more scrambling to do at the top, the climb is big enough anyway!
If you follow the line of chimneys all the way to the terrace at the top the technical grade is perhaps a bit harder than if you escape out right before the top. This last section is well protected and does have good hooks but thet are tricky to find and the foot holds are quite sloping for a move or two. This is at the point of most exposure of course! It's a great climb and a favourite of mine although I am looking forward to the snow freezing solid at the weekend. Cold NE winds will bring a marked drop in the temperature during Friday so all this wet soft snow has a good chance of turning into crispy solid stuff.
Nate is over from Washington State for a taste of Scottish winter climbing and the fabled tough conditions it is known for. We spent the day in a white room on Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis and I think we got enough conditiuons for several days. It started out good with a view of the crags as we walked in a it was dry too. As forecast though the snow started to fall early on and continued all day. There was a lot of soft snow on the route already so it was quite a workout. On the way down Nate sent a message to order two haggises and several puddings!
Thankfully a team went up Tower Ridge yesterday and there was a hint of a trail in the snow. The rocks are starting to fill in well but it is all quite soft snow. A thaw and refreeze would be great to turn the snow into solid snow-ice. As it is, the climbing does not feel very secure since the hooks and ledges are underneath the snow somewhere and the snow itself is pretty useless. If you don't know the route very well it will take a lot of time to climb the ridge. That said, ridges and buttresses are the best routes to climb right now. There is little ice (although it is starting to form again) and the gullies are deep in soft snow.
On the summit the visibility terrible, as you'd expect. We followed the compass bearing down and were grateful to get the reassurance of the cairns we passed. Being able to follow a compass bearing (preferably the right one) and to measure your distance covered over the ground are essential skills for navigating in this weather. The cairns are not sufficient to guide you down by themselves.
At last we dropped below the cloud at the crossing of the Red Burn on the Pony Track. It was quite strange to see some colour other than our red jackets, and a light down in Glen Nevis looked odd because we had seen no sign of anyone all day after we saw Ken and team cross over to Castle Ridge. So it was a great test of fitness, climbing and navigation, not to mention putting up with some uncomfortable weather. Perfect Scottish winter climbing!
One highlight of mine from 2017 was seeing Brian Cox live on stage. He described the image of planet Earth taken from the far edge of our solar system, the picture of our home planet taken from the furthest distance away. The image is a beautiful collection of millions of stars, one of which, one tiny blue pixel on the image, is planet Earth.
Brian Cox uses this image to illustrate the two ends of a spectrum of scale that seem to contradict each other. At one end, our solar system, planet Earth and each one of us living here are so incredibly small and insignificant when you look at the big picture of the galaxy and the entire universe. When we can stop for a moment and look outside of our own lives to see the bigger picture, we might just realise that all the things we build up to be big problems in our lives turn out to be insignificant on the bigger scale of the universe. Our planet is a very small dot in the universe but it is the only one we have and we should do better to understand this so that we might look after it better and try harder to get on with each other.
Unfortunately, very few of us will be able to go to space to get a real sense of this perspective. We do however have something much closer at hand and accessible to nearly everyone that can give us the same sense of scale. By exploring the mountains that surround us in Scotland we get to feel the immense scale of the landscape, the power of the weather, and the never-ending nature of wildness, that can give us a proper sense of scale. In a blizzard on a summit with numb fingers and an unrelenting wind, when we have to take a bearing on our compass to walk off safely there is nobody else we can turn to, nobody else we can blame if we get it wrong, and no sympathy in the weather or the landscape. It is a good reminder that each of us is not at the centre of things with the universe revolving around us. We need to learn some humility and to take responsibility for ourselves.
At the other end of the spectrum of scale, Brian Cox went on to talk about just how amazing each one of us is through the image of Earth taken from the edge of the solar system. Remember that it was a few humans that designed the space probe, understood the science, built and launched the probe and guided it successfully to the edge of space so that it could send us back an image from an incomprehensibly far distance. Each one of us is unique and incredibly special. Each one of us plays a vital role in our communities and in civilisation. We might not all design space probes but in our unique ways we all contribute to the human race.
I have just read a book by Colin Mortlock talking about the value of adventuring in Nature. He relates this contradiction of scale to snowflakes. Each one of us is as unique as a snow flake and beautiful in our own way. Collectively though we can feel insignificantly small, just one tiny part of a much bigger thing. We are each unique and we all have a unique role to play in life, but it is good to remember that everyone else is also unique and on the scale of the whole snow pack our significance is very small.
By going exploring in the mountains we can very easily get an appreciation of the immense scale of Nature and of the universe, as well as our vulnerability in it. We need determination, self-discipline, an open and inquisitive mind that is ready to learn from experiences and we need to work hard. We need to take on risk, measure it and manage it so that we are challenged but not being reckless. We need to be honest to ourselves about our capability and not measure ourselves up to other people and their capabilities.
Colin Mortlock goes on to say “The more effort you have to make, the more exposed you are to the influences of Nature and the greater the likelihood of being aware of its beauty. What this implies is that the greater the self-sufficiency and the fewer the barriers imposed by equipment and man-made features the greater the potential for heightened awareness. Being alone can further increase this awareness. These factors all point to the value of simplicity rather than complexity as an approach to life.”
So, in 2018, let’s explore more of Nature. Let’s take on challenges, immerse ourselves in Nature and be ready to appreciate it by working hard and being self-sufficient. Let’s go to the wild!
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
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.