Ice climbing in the sunshine.
Tony, Elved and I went to Beinn Udlaidh today to sample some of the lovely steep ice climbing there. Streams dribble down the cliffs here and form cascade style ice climbs, some of which are very steep indeed. With very cold temperatures, blue sky and sunshine today it was a very continental feel to the place. We could have been in La Grave or Cogne if there was a cafe at the bottom instead of a pig farm! Not that I have anything against trhe pig farm, it looks very well kept and the pigs are super friendly.
There were a few other people climbing there today but we managed to get into South Gully of the Black Wall first. This is a really nice IV,4 climb which you can climb in two long pitches with a rock belay half way up. The ice fall on the second pitch is not as hard as it looks and of course the ice is solid and fun to climb. We had a couple of snow showers and some spindrift caused by the wind making rotors in the coire but it was a really nice day and we came home completely dry again. It is much easier to stay warm when it is below freezing than if it is a degree or two above because you stay dry.
Lots of the other climbs were being enjoyed by various teams. The Croc and Peter Pan Direct were climbed, Quartzvein Scoop and several of the easier lines. Captain Hook looked like fun too. The lower tier is pretty well iced up as well so those of you with really strong arms can have a good workout there!
Elsewhere, Hadrian's Wall Direct was great today as well as several other big classic ice climbs. With the avalanche hazard being so low we can explore other routes on Ben Nevis so when it is busy at the weekend it might be worth thinking of places such as the ice climbs in the Trident Buttresses (Nasturtium is great) and around on the Little Brenva Face.
Hard ice and cold wind.
It was slightly less windy this morning so the gondola at Nevis Range was running as well as the chairlift. Elved, Tony and I had an easy ascent to 900m and a pretty easy walk from there up to the top of the ski area at about 1200m. Thankfully the wind dropped almost completely as we arrived so we had a great day of climbing on the East Face with some sunshine coming out in the afternoon. We even had the crag to ourselves which made a nice change to yesterday's social experience.
Since we were first there and the snow is really hard for walking across the steep slopes beneath the crag we abseiled down Left Twin and climbed straight back out again. This has been climbed a few times and there are nice steps but also hard ice to the side for protection. As always, there is a steep step left at the top of the gully before a few more metres of climbing to get out onto the easy finishing slopes. We went back down for another lap, this time climbing The Split. With it being so cold the ice in there was great too but when it warms up it will feel a bit thin probably. All the ice was hard and a bit brittle today with the cold dry conditions. Sharp picks and crampons are very useful and think about treating it like cascade climbing and avoid climbing underneath anyone else.
Dave and Micj went round to the West Face of Aonach Mor to climb Golden Oldie which felt wintry again with a tiny dusting of snow on it. Phil and Rod had fun at Beinn Udlaidh where they climbed a very steep Peter Pan Direct and Caspar, Jon and John climbed Italian Right Hand on Ben Nevis which was brilliant. There is no avalanche hazard right now and the big cornices are solid and not likely to fall off but there are plenty of other hazards - the cold is pretty serious especially if you are in the wind and the ice is getting brittle so falling debris will be a problem.
As the temperature starts to get even colder and the Easterly wind starts to blow stronger, Elved, Tony and I went for a deep gully with plenty of caves in which to shelter out of the elements. Crowberry Gully was actually our second choice of climb since it was too windy for the gondola to run at Nevis Range. It was certainly out of the wind though and very good fun to climb.
Lots and lots of people were heading up the path, past the impressive avalanche debris from a week ago, and it seemed like most of them were going up Curved Ridge. As it turned out, a lot of them were going into Crowberry Gully as well and we joined in at the back of the queue. The route is very well stepped out and has many belay ledges cut out of the solid snow. There is virtually no need to swing or kick at all for the whole climb. The gully is also very well banked out with snow and ice. Neither of the chockstones low down in the gully are exposed and it's very straightforward all the way up to The Junction.
The Left Hand finish looks very icy and snowy compared with how it was a couple of years ago when I climbed it with Tommy. I was very tempted to go that way but I stuck with the regular route and enjoyed the belay in the cave under the crux pitch which is very well iced up. Jon, John and Caspar came up as well to join the party; Annie finished off our winter mountaineering course on East Ridge of Beinn a'Chaorainn; and Phil and Rob climbed Italian Right Hand before descending Tower Ridge.
The ice on the North Face of Aonach Beag is really good right now. The last time I climbed here was about twenty years ago so it was way past time to go back. Having heard that Royal Pardon was really good John and I decided to head that way and give it a go. A couple of other teams had the same idea so it was a sociable day there. Stand and Deliver was climbed and it looks steep and good but not super fat. King's Ransom was also climbed I thin which looks like really good fun. But the main feature of the cliff is Royal Pardon, the narrow smear of ice that runs up the highest section of the crag and was on the cover of the previous SMC Ben Nevis guidebook.
Last time I climbed it I remember being nervous and holding on far too tightly to my ice axes. I got very tired very quickly and only just managed to climb the main pitch. This time I did much better and I had a lot of fun climbing it. The main pitch is sustained steep with a vertical section of a couple of metres but there are rests available and the ice is great for taking ice screws. With light weight 60m ropes it is pretty easy to link the second and third pitches to get to a nice place to belay and avoid the poor peg belay. Above there is a section of snow and a brilliant finishing pitch up more amazing ice.
This has to be one of Lochaber's best ice climbs. It is sustained, steep and in a wonderful setting. It was a wonderful way to finish an amazing few days of climbing with John - Dalmation Couloir, Orion Direct, Raven's Gully and Royal Pardon is a nice collection of climbs!
Over on Aonach Mor Blair and Sally were looking after our Avalanche Awareness Workshop, teaching core skills to avoid triggering or being caught by an avalanche. Despite the hard and very stable snow there are some layers to find underneath and there is plenty of learning from walking around observing the way the snow is transported by the wind and how to spot this. We also had a Winter Walking Skills workshop yesterday with another one tomorrow, then a walk up Ben Nevis on Sunday.
Over on Ben Nevis Caspar and Lee climbed Ledge Route on brilliant snow and a good trail in the sunshine. It looks like we will get a lot more sunshine and very cold weather for the next week. With easterly winds the west is best. In fact, the west is best anyway!
Second time lucky.
Just over a month ago Donald and I had a go at climbing Raven's Gully. Donald has tried before but it was the first go for me. We didn't get very far! Right now we have very different climbing conditions than we had back then. Lots and lots of snow fell in between and we had a good thaw and refreeze this week. So it was time for another go at Raven's Gully for me and John was lucky enough to share the adventure. I've looked up at it for the last twenty years and known that it was a big gap in my winter climbing tick list. It was so good to get it ticked today.
The trickiest move of the very many tricky moves on the climb is right at the start. Solid snow made it easy to get onto the first chockstone but the one imediately above is the crux and always gives a good fight. There are a couple of icy blobs on the left wall which were good to stand in and the rock is dry so it is asy to see the foot holds. The combination of these things made the move seem OK so it was game on. Raven's Gully is a lesson in chockstone climbing. It is the slottiest slot in Glen Coe and full of massive chockstones. It is very easy to get comfortable underneath each one and pretty hard getting around them all.
The snow and ice groove above the fork is no push over either. Small blobs of ice and snow were in just the right places and there was plenty of hooking in cracks as well. Some of the snow was cruddy and useless though so the climbing involved about every kind of move and hold you can imagine. We hooked cracks and chockstones, got great sticks in ice and snow, pulled and pushed with hands on the snow, bridged, pulled and balanced all the way up. Totally absorbing climbing in the most amazing place and a brilliant adventure. It was worth the wait. Raven's Gully delivers!
Solid snow at last.
At long last we were walking on top of the snow instead of trenching through it. For the last few weeks we have been waist deep at times in soft snow. Yesterday it was wet soft snow but a good frost last night with a clear sky and much drier atmosphere made the snow go solid at all levels. The avalanche hazard is low everywhere and the climbing is amazing!
The snow pack was pretty soft before the thaw on Monday so it sagged a lot in the warm and wet weather. At the top of the slope beneath the Orion Face there is something like a bergschrund with some very large blocks of snow that fell off while the snow slope sagged underneath. It felt like the start of a climb in the Alps, not Scotland. It also provides a very handy ledge for getting ready for the climb but don't drop anything down the gap at the back; you won't get it back for a long time.
There were a few drips of water on the second pitch of Orion Direct but the snow and ice were amazing to climb on. Very little debris was dislodged all day apart from me kicking out substantial ledges at all the best belay spots (for 60m ropes!). The snow is solid but not brittle and there is lots of ice for excellent protection and belays. We had fabulous views all day and we were first onto the route. There was a team going up Zero Gully but it felt like we had the whole face to ourselves. Orion Direct is always a brilliant climb and I will never get tired of it.
Of the other ice climbs, Zero Gully, Point Five Gully, Observatory Buttress and The Curtain were climbed today. I'm sure there were others climbed as well. It looked like Astral Highway was fat, Slav Route looked cool, Hadrian's Wall Direct, Tower Scoop, Smith's Route, The White Line, all the grade IV gullies in Coire na Ciste, Waterfall Gully and Compression Crack and many climbs on the Little Brenva Face all looked really good. NE Buttress was climbed today with a snowy and easy looking traverse to the First Platform, Tower Ridge, Ledge Route and Castle Ridge were all climbed. The snow is solid everywhere which makes travel really easy but take care on the steep slopes such as descending into Coire Leis or if you come down Number Four Gully. If you slip and slide you'll go a very long way. Looks like it will stay cold all through the weekend and next week. Whoop, whoop!
Glencoe slot climbing.
There are some outstanding slots to climb in Glen Coe. Crypt Route is the most impressive but there's also Crowberry Gully Left Hand, Raven's Gully and Dalmation Couloir. With climbing conditions on the turn today, John and I went to try Dalmation Couloir and we came away with an amazing experience of adventure!
Yesterday's thaw triggered lots of cornices to fall off and some very large avalanches. Crowberry Gully avalanched way past the Waterslide boulder and Coire Altruim avalanched right down to the lairig. Crown walls were visible all along the foot of the crag on Stob Coire Altruim and the debris from at least four separate slides was spread out across many hundreds of metres at the foot of the coire. Today it had not re-frozen properly and the snow was pretty soft and wet. At 925m there was a thin crust but certainly not enough to hold body weight. However, the snow in Dalmation Couloir was really quite useable and I even placed an ice screw at the start of the climb.
The first pitch had some steep ice and mixed moves into a bay underneath the first chockstone. This was fun to climb around and led to snow going all the way into a brilliant cave. The cave was well banked out at the entrance with a 2m drop into the cave. Some beautiful ice pillars were standing on the floor of the cave but they were not needed as belay anchors thankfully.
The steep bridging out of the cave was great fun and the steep snowy groove from there to the top was easy to climb but the firm snow was blocky and some of the blocks were not well attached to the cliff. So I tried to bridge the gap rather than just climb the snow and made it to the top without anything (or me) falling off. We got to the top after climbing a nice snow crest into warm sunshine and stunning voews of snow covered mountains in all directions. The snow cover is amazing right now and tomorrow, after a hard frost, it should be much better well frozen. Hopefully.
Snow-ice building in progress.
For soft snow to turn into solid snow-ice it needs to get really wet first, then freeze straight afterwards. Today, all the snow at all levels got a really good soaking and tomorrow it will start to re-freeze. In fact it looks like it will just get colder for the rest of this week and, chances are, for the rest of this month as well. So, be very happy that we endured a soggy wet day today with water running down the rocks, dripping into sleeves and hoods. Embrace the fact that your boots are soaked through and you got through several pairs of gloves. It was the first stage in a process that will give us amazing climbing and walking conditions very soon.
John and I went to Coire an t'Sneachda to escape the worst of the rain and stay very well clear of the cornices that would be dropping of various crags back home. The rocks were pretty black but there was enough snow and mushy ice on The Haston Line with a finish up Yukon Jack to give us some climbing. There was a suprising number of people in the coire and on the crag climbing various routes. It's a strangely British thing that we go climbing in the rain in winter. It was kind of fun too!
Sally and Grahame bagged another great Munro today, this time it was Aonach Beag from Glen Nevis. This is an imposing summit that is often traverse along with Aonach Mor just behind Nevis Range ski area. Taking the gondola makes it quite a simple hike over the flat featureless plateau of Aonach Mor and a short climb up for the col to Aonach Beag. However, from Steall at the head of Glen Nevis it is a far more rugged and wild climb with a lot more work and navigation involved.
On the map it looked like it would be under not such a great depth of snow cover with the recent wind blowing over the ridges. However, this proved not to be the case and there was quite a bit of snow to plough through. It was a bright morning though and the views back over the Mamores were spectacular. It warmed up slowly during the day and the cloud came down. Tonight we will have light rain to the summits and it will be a soggy and cloudy day tomorrow. By the mid-week though we are forecast frosty nights and sunny days so the snow will freeze and the winter walking and climbing will be amazing!
If you haven't heard yet, there is an amazing depth of soft snow covering the mountains of Scotland right now. Yesterday some people were turned back from Ben Nevis at the Red Burn due to a big cornice running up and down the far side of the gully that holds the burn. With 50cm of windslab sitting on a 10cm thick layer of grauple in the slope underneath the cornice they decided not to try to bash a way through. Ben Nevis will always be there and it is best to come back on another day rather than push on regardless of the hazard in front of you. It's the first time I have heard of Ben Nevis being impossible due to the volume of snow and a cornice at the half way point but that's what is so fun about Scottish winters. You never know what you're going to get!
So instead of Ben Nevis we had two Abacus Mountain Guides teams walk up Beinn a'Chaorainn, a brilliant Munro just past Roy Bridge on the way to Laggan. The normal access is from Roughburn and the first top is climbed by a south west facing ridge. Since this ridge faces the wind we have had that brought all the recent snow we thought it would be well enough scoured to walk up. Once on the summit ridge the soft sbnow shopuld not be too heavy going as well. This worked out reasonably but there was still quite an element of trail breaking to get up to the tops. We are certainly earning our dinner these days. We'll all have very well trained legs by the end of the winter!
It was a breezy day with some cloud and a few showers but also some very nice clear spells to wenjoy the views. Tomorrow will be slightly warmer with a thaw to much higher levels than recently and with some light rain. This will settle the snow pack and firm it up slowly, especially when it cools down again next week, so that hopefully we will not need to do quite so much wading.
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.