Tom was lucky enough to book onto one of our Classic Winter Climbing trips and end up being by himself for the week. This is less sociable of course but has meant that we can do just about whatever he wanted. Luckily, Tom wanted to explore the mixed up world of mixed climbing, lucky because there has been a lot of snow, continuous low temperatures and a persistent Considerable avalanche hazard. We need snow-thaw-freeze cycles to form snow-ice in our classic climbs. We have the snow and the freeze but without the thaw periods the snow has not transformed into ice or settled down into stable snow. So, it would have been all mixed climbs on buttresses anyway.
Rachael joined us on Monday and we started with Castle Ridge. This grade III is a classic ridge on Ben Nevis but it has a very distinct crux pitch in a steep chimney. With two ice axes and some comfort in hooking them into cracks and around chock-stones, this pitch can feel secure and fun to climb, but it is also incredibly exposed, awkward and pretty tough for many grade III climbers. We had a lovely day and we were suspicious of the snow everywhere, but we went up to Carn Dearg and descended Ledge Route back down into Coire na Ciste. Above 900m or so, there is a lot of snow and everything is very well filled in, so walking down Ledge Route was nice.
Tuesday took us to North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor. This is a fantastic climb with a very good ratio of walking to climbing. Seven pitches of climbing up the continuous line of chimneys got us to the walking section to the top. This is another rocky mixed climb that can build a bit of snow-ice, something that does change the grade, just the style of climbing. There was a bit of useful snow but also lots of hooking in cracks and teetering on little ledges with front points. Precision and accuracy are required more than strength - there is very little swinging of ice axes in rocky mixed climbing, just lots of scraping and searching for good hooks.
North Buttress is a popular climb and we enjoyed the company of three other teams on the climb. On Wednesday we went to where we knew there would be nobody else. In fact we didn't see anyone from leaving the van to getting back to it. We went to the West face of Aonach Beag where we climbed Raw Egg Buttress on the crag of the same name. Tom is very fit which is just as well - this is not a roadside crag. Three hours of rough ground, crusty snow and wading through deep drifts of fresh snow got us to the climb.
Raw Egg Buttress is an icy mixed climb, requiring a bit of ice in the grooves. We found plenty of ice, some snow-ice as well as some little bits of cascade ice that had formed from dribbles of water on the route. The buttress is a broken mass of pinnacles, blocks, walls and grooves. Punchy moves were separated by easy sections that benefited from the snow-ice. The last little wall was particularly spicy, with protection far below and a steep pull on dods of turf and nothing very much for the feet at all. The wind was blowing us up the wall but it also blew snow into our faces so we could not see very much and our eyebrows and lashes got well rimed up. Beautiful views from the top made up for the misty walk in and we got a great feeling of being out in the wilds in wild weather.
Not being afraid of a chunky walk in, today Tom and I went to Church Door Buttress. This a fabulous place for mixed climbing, home to some of the best and most charismatic climbs in Scotland. We had great fun in Western Chimney where we found lots of very helpful snow-ice, and lots of snow in general that had been blown up into the chimney. The crux overhangs quite considerably so this snow was no use there and we decided that we should bring more forearms next time!
We climbed up to the Great Arch enjoying the icy mixed climbing and cool moves. Protection is quite well buried or covered up in rimes, and then quite hard to dig out. Cracks are well iced up, but there is a lot of useful snow. This was Tom's first visit to Church Door Buttress so, to give him a feel for the place, we abseiled off the arch into Central Gully. This is 60m of vertical ground down under the arch, looking into Crypt Route all the way down. It's a very exciting abseil! Tomorrow will be a beautiful day with lots of sunshine and lighter winds so I think we will go back up Ben Nevis for another ultimate classic ridge.
This spell of cold weather will end on Saturday. We have a few days of thaw forecast from Saturday afternoon along with some light rain at all levels. This will make route choice quite tricky at the weekend and it might trigger some of the windslab to avalanche. After a few days the avalanche hazard will reduce again, especially when we return to colder weather. Hopefully some of the fantastic cover of snow we have now will turn into ice on the climbs and bring some ice routes into good climbing condition. So far, it is shaping up to be a very good winter for climbing.
We have space on our Classic Winter Climbing trip in March (13th to 17th March) as well as availability for private guiding in the week of 6th to 10th March. Get in touch if you'd like to book either of these.
This week has been very much like January on the west coast of Scotland should be - cold, wet and windy. Each day, Richard, Phil and I have come back soaked, battered and exhausted. Each evening we have dried out all our gear ready to do it all again the next day. Winter climbing is a strange game.
We started out on Tuesday with Curved Ridge. This was actually lovely and we had some nice views. The ridge was well covered in snow and the wind was not as strong as forecast. The temperature did rise to above the summits though so we got pretty wet on the way down. We were talking about avalanches, snow transportation and signs you can see as you go along. The sastrugi you can see in the picture above are the lines formed by the wind scouring away snow and putting it down somewhere else. This is an indicator that this particular slope is more becoming more stable.
Yesterday we drove over to Glen Shiel where we climbed the Forcan Ridge. This spectacular, long ridge is a fantastic expedition that goes over a few tops before arriving on The Saddle. We moved together in alpine style for the whole climb, placing protection in the form of slings on blocks and through threads, and weaving around blocks on the ridge to act as anchors on the rope for us. There is also a cool little abseil that adds a bit of spice. Gusty winds and fast moving showers and clouds made it very atmospheric.
Today we went up Ben Nevis for another soaking. We climbed The SW Ridge of Douglas Boulder to nudge the technical level a bit higher and try out climbing with two ice axes. It was pretty well buried in snow so we didn't see many of the hooks that we pulled on, but we got an idea of mixed climbing. Ben Nevis above the CIC Hut is a very white place right now. Lots of snow has built up over the last few days with the freezing level going up and down a bit to lock the snow in place. An icy crust on the snow gave us the confidence that the snow we were on was not going to avalanche and the descent down East Gully of Douglas Gap was wind blown so little of the fresh snow that fell during the day had collected there.
If you want to go climbing at the weekend, you should be a bit cautious with the snow. Avoid the gullies and stick to ridges and buttresses would be good advice. There is a lot of snow in the gullies and we saw one avalanche today and the debris of a second. The snow will take a while to transform into good ice for climbing on. There is still some ice around - Vanishing Gully looked fully formed, but it is hard to tell when there is so much snow on top of the ice, and this is where we saw an avalanche come down!
The buttresses are very white with rime and snow so if you choose a crag that faces the wind (where most of the snow has been blown off) you will find some good climbing. Turf is frozen above 1000m. Tower Ridge would be a bit of a wade digging a trench through the snow, so try and go second and let someone else enjoy the hard work!
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.