Carn Dearg Cascades.
A few years ago Elved sustained a terrible injury in a climbing accident in North Wales. He's been walking and rock climbing since but this was his first time ice climbing again. We will ease back into it gently this week and today we made a great start by climbing on the Carn Dearg Cascades. With strong gusting winds and rising temperature this was a smart place to go anyway. There were a few reports of cracks in the snow and avalanches being triggered so it was good to have nothing above us. We climbed two lines just right of The Organ Pipes and we abseiled off each time. 60m ropes are quite handy for this. The ice was nice, soft and plastic in the warmer conditions. It also stayed dry which was a nice surprise.
Several teams turned back on the walk in but for those that persevered there was good climbing to enjoy. Steve went up Ledge Route and Hannah and Mark climbed Mega Route X. The Curtain also had a couple of ascents. Tonight's thaw will hopefully be enough to stabilise the snow after it freezes again later tomorrow.
What a stunner of a weekend! Unbroken sunshine, cold and calm weather all weekend gave us all a real treat. The Outdoor Capital of the UK at its best! Mike and Jonty climbed Orion Direct yesterday and went back to climb Minus Two Gully with a finish up NE Buttress today. Two of the best climbs on Ben Nevis done in great condition in perfect weather. Simon, Simon and Ben found Coire na Ciste was much more quiet today so they had Green Gully to themselves.
Up at Nevis Range the snow was brilliant for skiing and snow boarding. Lots of people were enjoying the pistes and plenty of people made the trip to the summit of Aonach Mor to find untracked snow in the back coires. Today I was helping out with some training for Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team members which turned into helping out on a real rescue. A skier hurt her leg at the bottom of Coire an Lochain so we went down Easy Gully to help out. The new Rescue 951 helicopter arrived at the same time as we did and we helped lift her in for a quick ride down. We carried on with the training before walking back to the front of the ski area.
Three weeks ago this winter was looking pretty dismal. Now it's looking really quite good!
Mega Route X
Let me tell you a story. Getting geared up and trying to get into the right frame of mind, something did not feel quite right. Not everything clicked into place as it needed to. I did not feel the calm commitment that I had felt before. So, instead of soloing Mega Route X, I went home to try to work out what was wrong.
This was many years ago when I was young and bold. My friend Jonny and I had done many solo ascents of classic ice climbs. Most of the classic grade V climbs were already done and we were talking about what would be next. Mega Route X seemed to be the obvious choice but a competitive element crept into our discussions. It became a bit of a race to see which of us would be the first to solo the climb.
Standing at the foot of the route, it did not feel quite right because of this competitive element. Instead of choosing to do the climb because it felt good and right on the day, it felt like I was doing it partly to get one up on Jonny. So I'm glad I went home that day.
A couple of weeks later, having worked through all this and having lost the competitive edge with Jonny I went back and climbed it. My wife Louise was waiting in the coire and we went to climb Curtain Rail afterwards. It felt really good that day.
So today was the second time I've climbed Mega Route X and it made a brilliant end to three excellent days of climbing with Abib. The first few metres are a little thin and steep but this is not unusual. After this it is fat and steep with good ice. You need all your steep ice climbing techniques to manage the climb. Straight arm hangs, pelvis in and arch your back to get the weight onto your feet and keep your feet wide and your axes central. We climbed it in two pitches and abseiled all the way down in one go which is the common way to tackle it now. It is given V,6 but it feels a big step up from Vanishing Gully which is given V,5.
It is an intimidating climb. From the coire it looks very steep indeed and it is only when you get a bit closer that it looks a bit more amenable. Even then, my poor forearms were giving up by the time I got to the top of the steep bit. The thought of soloing this climb now fills me with dread even if I had wrist leashes as I used back then.
It does make the point that we should be very careful with our route choices and make sure the reasons for taking on a climb are good reasons. We do like to challenge ourselves but we should do a careful risk assessment before we go climbing. Are you good enough and strong enough? Is the climb in good condition? Is the weather good enough? We should not feel pressured into climbing anything because we want to show others how good we are, because it is so rarely possible or even because we are guiding and our clients want to do it.
Today felt like fun. Hard work and scary but fun as well! Mega Route X is a brilliant climb and it always lives up to its name!
The ice climbing on Carn Dearg Buttress in January of last year was excellent, the best we've seen for many years. Right now it is just as good again. Abib and I climbed Gemini which we found to be better iced up than it was last year. The Shroud is huge and The Shield Direct looks pretty good too.
Abib and I followed Chris and Max up Gemini which made it a more sociable day. The first pitch is steep but well iced with good quality ice. The big smear is fat and can be climbed on either side of the giant flake. We went right and found some brittle ice but my picks were a bit blunt by then too! The mixed pitches are well iced up too which makes them more straightforward. The exit groove is great fun on fat solid ice.
There were a few teams on Orion Direct today and they all seemed to climb the route quite quickly. I wonder if there is now a nice trail up this climb. The Curtain had a few more ascents as well as Vanishing Gully, Boomers Requiem and others. The snow is settling down a bit but there are areas of deep soft snow which make travel heavy going. We have another few days of cold calm weather including this weekend. Make sure you make the most of it!
Gutless and Vanishing Gully.
Great weather and good climbing conditions continue on Ben Nevis. Abib and I went to see what the ice was like with a wee warm up on Vanishing Gully. As it was, another team got there just before us so we went to climb Gutless first. This side of Douglas Boulder is very icy which benefits Gutless. There are a couple of icy steps before you get into the chimney and the last groove to the big ledge is much more secure with good solid snow. With good protection, great moves and wild positions this is a brilliant wee climb. I think it's a shame there are quite a lot of fixed anchors on this route now from people abseiling down the climb so we tidied up what we could.
We went over to the SW Ridge and abseiled down to the foot of West Gully of Douglas Gap. If you pass the sling I left behind please tidy it up too! Vanishing Gully was next and was great fun. I bashed through the ice to open up the cave for a more comfortable belay and found quite a bit of water still flowing through the snow and ice. This will be freezing over night so the ice at this level will still be growing.
Vanishing Gully has had a few ascents this week and it is already stepped out with easy hooks for the axes. Surprisingly, the ice was not great for ice screws on the second pitch. I wonder if a lot of snow was blown up the gully as the ice was forming so it is a little cruddy. The Curtain was climbed by a few teams today as well as Jackknife, Fawlty Towers, Orion Direct and a few others. Large cornices are in place over east facing crags and gullies such as Number Four Gully. However, this now has a notch in the cornice and the gully was descended. The avalanche hazard is slowly reducing in the calm weather but it is still significant.
Lots of ice on Ben Nevis.
Calm and cold conditions are forecast to stay with us for a week or more so I went up to Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis with a group from the Nevis Hillwalking Club to see what it's like. We were not disappointed. We found interesting snow for our winter skills training and we were surrounded by ice and rimed up crags with a few climbers out enjoying the routes.
We talked about avoiding avalanches by planning in advance and spotting signs of wind slab and avalanche hazard. We got the crampons on and practised using them on hard snow, ice and rock on all sorts of angles. We also did some self-arrest with an ice axe and climbed a small grade I snow gully. Not bad for the first day on crampons for one of the team! There are many deep accumulations of wind slab which is slowly settling down but still poses a considerable avalanche hazard.
Ice is now oozing out of every crack and chimney at the mid-level on Ben Nevis. The Shroud has touched down in two places, Gemini and The Shield Direct both look complete. Mega Route X looks good too and The Curtain is a bit snowy but not far from being formed. A couple of teams climbed Vanishing Gully and one team climbed Orion Direct. Point Five Gully and Hadrian's Wall Direct are fat along with Smith's Route but it is a long way up big areas of windslab to get to these routes.
The great ridges are all very well covered with snow. Ledge Route has a trail up it and a few people climbed Tower Ridge today. The buttresses are very well rimed up but there is lots of ice in the cracks making protection tricky to find.
It would be worth being patient for the snow to settle down and the avalanche hazard to reduce before tackling some of the bigger approach slopes. Cold, calm weather will stay with us for the rest of this week at least.
Western Chimney Route.
Many apologies for the break in blog posts. I was having too much fun at Fort William Mountain Festival and no spare time for blogging. Last week we had thaw days on Tuesday and Friday, and lots of fresh snow on the other days. Strong westerly winds have been transporting a lot of snow into deep accumulations and the avalanche hazard is pretty tricky at the moment. Ice has been growing well though on Ben Nevis.
So with lots of red on the Lochaber SAIS forecast Paul and I went round to Glen Coe. Paul was on our Performance Winter Climbing Workshop at the weekend so he had a great day of coaching on the ice and a day on Jackknife and Waterfall Gully yesterday. Today we went to Church Door Buttress and we climbed Western Chimney Route. I climbed this two weeks ago and I had just as much fun today. There is a bit more solid snow in the chimney and on the exit from The Arch. Great climbing, sunshine and calm weather made it a brilliant day out.
Church Door Buttress is very well rimed up and pretty icy. There is quite a lot of ice on Stob Coire nam Beith - Deep Cut Chimney looks like fun. On Aonach Dubh West Face there is also some ice. Number Six Gully looks full of snow with not much ice obvious. The Screen is quite icy too. Cold weather this week will continue to build the ice and slowly settle the snow hopefully.
Several avalanches were triggered by climbers and skiers yesterday on Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor. There were more today and one large one triggered by climbers in Coire nan Lochan. But we have not had any snow fall over the last couple of days so why has the avalanche hazard not reduced and why have people been caught out? There are two factors that might have had a role to play.
Windslab is formed by the wind transporting snow from the windy side of the mountain to the sheltered side. As the snow is transported it changes structure so that when it collects on sheltered slopes and gullies the snow forms a coherent slab. If this slab is on a slope steeper than, say, 30 degrees and if it is not very well stuck to the layer underneath it is prone to sliding off when triggered by people walking or skiing over the top of it.
This process most often happens when it is snowing and there is a wind. However you don't need the snow fall. If there is loose snow on the ground on one aspect of slope (put there by a certain wind direction) and the wind changes direction the loose snow will be transported to the new sheltered aspect. We had lots of soft snow mostly on easterly aspects last week. Now we have easterly winds the snow is being transported over onto westerly aspects. Unfortunately though, this is a simplification of the process since high coires make the wind go round in all sorts of weird directions. So the redistribution of snow is mostly onto westerly aspects as well as gullies and hollows being cross loaded by the easterly wind, but also isolated areas that have been loaded by snow by a local wind direction. These isolated areas can be on any aspect of slope.
So we need to be able to recognise the texture of wind blown snow so that when we step onto wind slab we know it straight away. Better still, if we can spot it in advance, we can avoid it altogether. Wind slab does have quite a distinctive look and texture so once you know how it looks and feels you will recognise it. In conditions like we have now we should be alert to pockets of wind slab anywhere.
Secondly, in cold dry conditions for some time, faceted ice crystals can grow down in the existing snow pack. These faceted crystals can grow into a weak layer in the snow pack with no apparent change in texture or look on the surface. A layer of faceted crystals is therefore difficult to spot and is a tricky hazard to avoid. Faceted crystals are beautiful and delicate but also very weak. The layer of snow on top can be very poorly held in place by this layer and the crystals also help the top layer slide once triggered.
To form faceted crystals you need a temperature gradient between the bottom of the snow pack and the surface. The bottom is always at or close to zero celcius so when we have cold weather the surface will be several degrees colder, forming a temperature gradient. When there is a difference of 10 degrees in a depth of one metre (or just one degree in a depth of 10cm) the gradient is steep enough to form faceted crystals. These form by water vapour being drawn through the snow pack from the ground to the surface by the temperature gradient. As the water vapour travels through the snow it can find a trigger to desublimate into ice crystals. Sometimes an icy layer in the snow pack can be the trigger but it can be something far less distinct too.
We currently have a snow surface temperature of about -7C so in areas where the snow is 70cm deep or less we might well get faceted crystals growing. Once in place this weak layer can persist for a long time.
Today there was an avalanche in Coire nan Lochan to the north of North Buttress on an easterly aspect. With the easterly wind blowing onto this slope you'd have thought there would not be much hazard on this slope. I don't know if this avalanche was caused by cross loading, a weak layer of faceted crystals or by the hazard that was on this slope before the easterly wind started blowing. But it is a good reminder that we all need to be avalanche aware all the time. Stay focused and make sure you can recognise wind slab.
Crowberry Gully Left Fork.
Crowberry Gully is a favourite of mine and Donald's but neither of us had climbed the Left Fork before today. So with stable snow and great weather in Glen Coe we went to climb it with Chris and Tommy. For Tommy and me it was the last of our tour of classic Lochaber chimneys and it did not disappoint!
Crowberry Gully has lots of soft snow and some firm snow in it. The depth of snow is not as great as I've seen it in previous years. The first couple of chockstones are not buried, in fact the tunnel behind one of these is a vertical snow tube that is fun to climb up. The Thin Crack Chimney is a bit soft so we went right up a corner and traversed left back into the gully. From here we went straight up the Left Fork which is the direct finish to the gully. We climbed behind the first chockstone and up to the final chimney which is very intimidating.
Donald did a brilliant job of leading the final pitch. It is steep with wild bridging, back and footing, and plenty of udging. I think it would be more straightforward given more ice on the left wall. As it was today we climbed the snowed up rock up the final chockstone where there is good but very awkward protection. A wild move out from the chockstone onto a smear of ice in a phenomenal position got us past this final obstacle. It was all absolutely brilliant and a stunning finish to a week of chimneys.
Over on Ben Nevis the SE wind was transporting a lot of snow and building windslab very quickly. Several small avalanches on several different aspects spooked a lot of people and forced several changes of plan. It looks like we will have cold windy conditions for a few days so we should expect plenty more of this. Take care and make good decisions based on the avalanche hazard. The climbs will be there another day.
The Great Chimney.
Continuing the theme of chimneys this week, Tommy and I climbed The Great Chimney on the east flank of Tower Ridge today. Steady snow was falling as we walked in with very light winds. We were expecting a frost and dry conditions today so it was a surprise to get more snow. With the ice climbs still being a bit lean I wanted to be able to see the ice before climbing it - with the fresh snow this was impossible so we went for a climb that we knew would work out for us.
Walking up Observatory Gully was hard work in the soft snow. We had fresh snow last night and the night before so progress is difficult on foot. The Great Chimney benefits from having solid snow. There was little solid snow today but there was plenty of soft snow to clear out of the way. Excellent climbing in two pitches up the chimney got us to Tower Ridge. The final wall in the chimney is baffling at first sight but with some wild back and foot bridging and some determination it goes well. The climb felt harder than the others we have done this week so V,6 is probably about right.
One team turned around from walking (wading) up to Hadrians Wall Direct. The ice on this climb looks OK and Point Five Gully looks fat. Smiths Route is well enough formed but generally the big ice climbs are not great. Green Gully and Comb Gully, Tower Scoop, The White Line, Waterfall Gully and many other mid grade snow and ice climbs are pretty good to climb but the ice is not always very solid. Ice has been forming on Mega Route X and The Shroud but I think both are still a bit too thin to have a go at.
The great ridges are all very nice although coming down Tower Ridge today was a lot easier than going up it would have been in the deep soft snow. Steep mixed routes are well rimed up, frozen and snowy. Icy mixed climbs such as Tower Face of the Comb and Stringfellow could be nice but there is a lot of soft snow on them too. The big gullies have some cornices on them.
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.