High pressure brought us settled, cold, dry weather last week after a reasonable cover of snow, a quick thaw and refreeze. It was a fantastic start to my winter of guiding and climbing in which Doug and I enjoyed stunning days out, fantastic climbing and dry gear at the end of every day.
We started out on Stob Coire nan Lochan on Monday, climbing Raeburn's Buttress (AKA Central Buttress Ordinary Route). At grade IV,4 and in really friendly condition, this was a nice warm up, a reminder of the movement and feel of winter climbing. It was a fantastic way to get . Previous climbers had left boot prints if compacted snow which had frozen nicely to provide really nice sticks with the ice axes. Protection was easy to find, belay ledges pre-prepared, and travel around the mountain was simple on the firm snow.
Ben Nevis was second and a climb called Lost the Place (V,5). I knew that this had also been climbed recently, so it would be nice for us to climb. The snow has been quite cruddy for climbing (but firm enough to walk on) in most places above 900m or 1000m. Climbing something first since the recent snowfall was pretty hard going. Ali and Kelvin climbed Maneater on Aonach Mor on Monday and had to dig it out from under the cruddy snow. Lost the Place is a brilliant mixed climb which is at the harder end of the grade V spectrum. The main long pitch up a groove is sustained and brilliant, there's a weird balancy move on the link pitch, then an intimidating overhanging chimney to finish. Warming up in the sunshine on top with nearly no wind and amazing views out west was outstanding.
Doug and I upped the grade and effort levels again on Wednesday by going to Church Door Buttress on Bidean nam Bian. We climbed Crypt Route, a bizarre route that goes subterranean for much of it including a very small squeeze between chockstones. On previous ascents I have managed to fit through quite well but this time I found it properly hard! Full-on effort required for 1m of upward progress.
A slightly easier day on Aonach Mor on Thursday gave us completely calm conditions, warm in the sunshine but cold in the shade. We went to the East Face (Coire an Lochain) and walked down Easy Gully to climb Morwind (IV,4). Early season conditions with little ice build up meant that we were climbing rimed rocks and frozen turf. Like this, the climb can feel a bit more tricky (and certainly not III,4 as listed in some guidebooks). Fantastic climbing though and wonderful views over to Schiehallion and the Cairngorms.
We didn't take it easy on our last day, we went to Buachaille Etive Mor to climb Shelf Route (IV,6). This is a fantastic route that is not so well known giving six really fun pitches of chockstones and chimneys in a great position overlooking Crowberry Gully. There was just about enough snow at the start (which is quite low down) to make it feel wintry and by the top we were digging out the hooks and ledges from the cruddy snow. The top of the climbing is on Crowberry Ridge just below Crowberry Tower, so you still have to get up to the summit from there. It's a long climb and really good fun. The walk in and descent through Coire na Tulaich were about at tricky as the climbing with lots of water ice over the rocks and hoar frost covering everything that wasn't in the sunshine.
As the weather started to show the first signs of changing with the high pressure drifting away we walked down reflecting on an amazing week of climbing. For me, there is always a bit of uncertainty at the start of every winter around my fitness, how I'll cope with back to back days out for many weeks, the physical and mental demands, but these were all addressed positively this week. It feels good to be at the start of another full winter of climbing (my 24th in a row). For Doug we nudged the experience and skills envelope a bit bigger by doing lots of mixed climbing on trad gear, a huge array of wacky three dimensional climbing and five big days in a row.
We also discovered that we had been following Harold Raeburn around all week. He made the first ascent of Raeburn's Route, Raeburn's Chimney provides the route up from The Great Arch on Church Door Buttress, and he did the first ascent of a route next to Shelf Route. All of this more than 100 years ago!
Between Christmas and New Year we had a couple of storms that brought a bit of snow for us. It is currently lying down to around 600m and is not very deep, but it is very welcome! On Monday (New Year's Day) I went into Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis to climb Strident Edge with Ali. We had tried a couple of times previously and found it to be black. This time it was white and frozen with a light covering of rime and snow. Perfect for mixed climbing.
The rest of this week has been a bit warmer so Strident Edge and the Trident Buttresses are black. Ali and I chose the right day to go climbing.
Today I had a lovely day with Elise and Dom climbing Ledge Route. This was their first day in crampons but they have done some scrambling and hiking previously. Ledge Route was a perfect way to the summit of Ben Nevis, learning crampon skills on the way as well as moving on a rope in a team of three.
The snow was soggy today and we were glad to get above the freezing level, even if it was up at 1100m or so. Even on the summit the snow was soft and wet, and we also got a long shower of drizzly rain on the summit. The temperature seemed to have gone up by a couple of degrees as we walked across to the summit from Carn Dearg.
The warmer conditions are consolidating the snowpack ready to freeze up when the temperature drops again over the next few days. The big gullies are full but only with a thin cover of snow. There are no cornices above any of the gullies causing problems and people have climbed Number Four Gully and Number Two Gully. The scree slopes in the coires are half covered in snow with plenty of rocks still showing through.
Ice had been forming nicely in drainage lines such as Waterfall Gully and The Curtain. However, at this altitude the ice has been melting for a few days now. It is not likely to build very fast unless it gets a lot colder.
Mid-grade gullies such as Green Gully are not formed with snow-ice. They will take a couple more storms with fresh snow then thaw freeze cycles to build enough ice I think.
The big ridges such as Tower Ridge and NE Buttress look like fun, especially when the snow freezes in the next few days. Below about 1200m the rocks are black. Above 1200m there is now thick icy rime on the rocks, so they look white but will be quite tough for mixed climbing. There is lots of rime on the summit shelter and ruins.
So, there is a limited selection of climbing to do, the ground is cold and we have a nice spell of weather coming our way with high pressure building. We will get more snow later this month I'm sure and plenty more storms so the ice will build through the season. But, it's not a bad start.
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.