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
Lots of fresh snow.
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.
After the storms of last week we had a very nice weekend with a little powder skiing and some good climbing conditions. Point Five Gully was climbed on Saturday and described as being good. NE Buttress and Tower Ridge were also very nice, and some harder mixed climbs were being too. On Monday it started to thaw as high pressure to the south brought warm air from the Atlantic over Scotland. We have been in the mist and murk since, watching the snow and ice melt away again. At least it has not been quite as windy as last week!
Today I climbed Tower Ridge with Hamish, Willis and Matt. We didn't use crampons at all but they might have been nice for a step or two in the last 15m to the summit. The Fallen Block Chimney is full and the Eastern Traverse is all on snow. We have some snow on the other great ridges and when it freezes they will be very nice.
Point Five Gully has melted out revealing a patch of waterfall in the first pitch. Hadrian's Wall Direct has a thin line of ice on it, as does Indicator Wall. Smith's Route has a good amount of ice on it and would not take much to form it completely. In the soggy conditions with rocks falling every now and then, we were quite happy to be on ridge!
The coires are quite full of snow and the big snow gullies are certainly full. A team of skiers went up Observatory Gully for a way today and enjoyed a nice ski all the way back to the foot of Douglas Boulder.
There is snow on the Pony Track from Glen Nevis and good navigation is crucial now that you can't just follow the path.
We have a couple more days of thaw, although slightly cooler than the last two days. Then it looks like it will freeze properly on Sunday and into next week with some fresh snowfall.
It's been a very stormy week. Continuous strong winds brought snow this week and have left deep deposits in very sheltered places only. Thankfully, these are in all the right places for climbers and skiers!
On Thursday it rained up to the summits and now the old snow has settled and has a decent crust on it with some fresh, cold, dry snow on top. The skiing today at Nevis Range was lovely in the fresh snow from last night. There were a few icy patches to be wary of but in genreal it was really good fun to be out skiing. Well done to Nevis Range for getting anything open today after a ferocious week of weather! The skiing was pretty good in some Glencoe Gullies such as Broad Gully and Boomerang Gully too.
In all the stormy weather and with some thaw freeze action, ice has been forming too. Up on Ben Nevis, all the big ridges are well filled in with snow now, the gullies are full and topped with cornices, and there is ice forming on the mid-grade routes as well as the steeper classics. After a few more thaw freeze cycles next week there might be some very nice ice climbing to enjoy soon(ish).
Meanwhile, mixed climbs such as The Great Chimney and Jacknife have been climbed and today there was some rime on high buttresses and plenty of snow on the ledges.
Will it still be good in February? Well, nobody knows, but we have places left on our Performance Winter Climbing Workshop on 22nd and 23rd February so I hope so!
The weather has been terrible this week. Part of my shed roof got blown off on Monday and streets have been flooded in Caol, despite being used to a bit of rain every now and again. Today was a very good day though, a big change in the weather caused by a ridge of high pressure giving us a freeze and fresh snow down to 500m or so. Light winds and just a few clouds way above the tops made the views very good too.
Nigel and I had planned to go out climbing on Monday, and I'm very glad he was able to change to today. We went up to Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis to see what was there. We found a little fresh snow that freshened up the look of the place, making it look and feel much more wintry. The snow has blown in to the heads of the big gullies but hasn't added much to the snow pack. The rocks were not rimed below about 1250m and most of the buttresse were black. However, the old snow was very nicely frozen and there was just a tiny bit more ice than there was on Friday of last week. It was +15C at sea level at the start of the week but even this didn't strip everything!
If I had a pair of ropes today instead of just one single rope, I would have gone to climb Green Gully. That's not to say it would be steady away grade IV ice climbing, it would not be! But it did look like there would be enough ice and build up of snow-ice to make it possible to climb with a few hooks and steps on rock. A strong Swiss team climbed Two Step Corner on thin and patchy ice before finishing up Quickstep (I think) on true mixed ground. The mid-grade gullies on Creag Coire na Ciste are still basically bare of ice. Glover's Chimney has no ice on the first pitch but the rest of it is fine! Bumber Two Gully and the big easy gullies are all complete apart from Number Five Gully and the Castle Gullies.
Nigel and I took some variations to the normal route of Number Three Gully Buttress. We went right and up a groove after the first ice pitch, theen right and up another groove to get straight onto the rock step of the normal route. This is a really nice variation that adds a lot more climbing but at the same grade. There are many different finishes to the route and we took the most exciting! Straight up from the last belay is a thin chimney that gets you onto a ramp going right to a brilliant wee pedestal in a fantastic position. Climb this and step off the top to the top of the crag.
We enjoyed the views from the top before cutting a snow bollard and abseiling into Number Three Gully. There is no cornice to speak of and it is possible to climb down from the top but we wanted to refresh the details of cutting snow bollards.
If we get more of these lean winters, we need to start thinking about climbs differently. In my mind, Two Step Corner is an ice climb that needs to be fat with ice to make it a good climb. However, the Swiss team that climbed it today were having a great time, and had been put off by any preconceptions about it. Last winter I climbed the Central Gullies on Creag Coire na Ciste when they were very thin and patchy, and we enjoyed really good climbing. Some ice climbs will not be fun in mixed conditions, but many of them will be. I wonder when someone will make the first ascent of Point Five Gully as a mixed climb!
Number Three Gully Buttress.
After heavy rain at summit level yesterday it was nice to get another good day today. The temperature dropped rapidly at 9pm yesterday and the snow had firmed up again by the time we got to Coire na Ciste today. A few snow showers added to the wintry feel of the day as well with some spindrift and swilry winds blowing the snow around every now and again. In between the squalls, it was pretty calm and the climbing was fun.
At Abacus Mountain Guides we work with trainee mountaineering instructors and British Mountain Guides to give them an aportunity to get some experience of working in the Scottish mountains in winter. This starts with a day out together for us to get to know each other, to do some climbing and for us to share knowledge aboput lots of guiding and intstructing things. Scott and Pete are trainee Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructors and Tim is a Trainee British Mountain Guide, and we all went to climb Number Three Gully Buttress.
The climb is thin, patchy and soggy in the first pitch, great snow on the second, rocky with verglas on the third pitch and quite rocky in the last two pitches. Slightly sub-prime conditions but fun for a strong team even so. It's a really reliable climb that is good to climb as long as there is enough ice on the first pitch. This ice forms pretty quickly but even so there was not much there today! Other teams were climbing Number Two Gully and Gardyloo Gully as well as Ledge Route and the other big snow gullies.
From the top we went up to Tower Gully which we descended all the way back to the CIC Hut. There is a little ice on some of the big climbs out of Observatory Gully. Smith's Route, Point Five Gully and Hadrian's Wall Direct all have a little ice but nowhere near enough to climb. It's a start though and something to build on. The warm forecast for the next two days does not look too promising but it does look like it will cool down slightly next week. Fingers crossed!
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.