More snow, a change of wind direction and slowly rising temperatures made yesterday (Friday) even more hazardous in the mountains. Our team of guides and instructors chatted through all sorts of ideas, scratched our heads a lot and chose to go to low level venues or places with no threat of avalanche from above, with a safe approach. For Will, Jonathan and me, this was a climb called Green Hollow Route on Ben Nevis. Alan Kimber recommended my this climb many years ago for when you can't go high on the mountain. It was a great recommendation and it gave us a little bit of climbing on a very serious day.
The wind was in our faces walking up to the CIC Hut, whereas it had been behind us for the few days previously. It was obvious that snow was being transported to the "other" aspects. It was also more dense, moist and heavy snow. Much more serious if it did avalanche. There was a team climbing Gemini which looked really cool and is in a safe spot. Getting back down involves descending Ledge Route and Number Five Gully or ascending Ledge Route. There were also teams climbing Vanishing Gully and Douglas Boulder. The area of snow above Vanishing Gully looks small in comparison to the scale of that flank of Tower Ridge, but when you get there you see it is a very big area of snow if you think about it avalanching down the gully.
Jonathan, Will and I walked up to the foot of NE Buttress with lots of space between us and Observatory Gully. We were next to the Allt a'Mhuilinn until we were level with the crags before we turned to head across to the crags. There is no snow slope on the approach and nothing above the climb. We did a very nice pitch of climbing on ice grooves weaving through the rocks and there was more fun looking climbing above but with the gusts of wind, the heavy spindrift and the noise of the avalanche down Observatory Gully as we were climbing, we decided one pitch was enough. We abseiled off and went home, carefully! Walking down from the CIC Hut was pretty full on white out with no sign of the path and deep soft snow everywhere.
Today the avalanche hazard is even higher. I am not sure I have ever seen a high hazard forecast on 180 degrees of slope aspects, all the way down to 800m above sea level. As well as this, it is a considerable hazard on other aspects. We had planned on leading a walking group up the Pony Track on Ben Nevis but we decided not to do this due to the avalanche hazard close to the Red Burn. We have another group out on a 600m hill above Glen Nevis and a third group out on a buttress in Glencoe having decided there was no chance of getting on to Tower Ridge. This cold and snowy weather will continue all next week by the look of it. It's going to be another very challenging week.
All the hard icy snow we enjoyed on Monday has been buried by a huge fall of fresh snow, all the way down to sea level. Yesterday was quite snowy and the westerly wind was transporting a lot of it around the crags. In the heavy snow showers, cascades of spindrift fell down the big faces, was blown back up some of them, only to fall eventually to the bottom of the crag. Snow was collecting very rapidly in the east facing gullies and slopes, and the west facing crags had a lot of spindrift. We got an early impression of the avalanche risk from seeing an avalanche come out of South Castle Gully on the walk up the Allt a'Mhuilinn. Clearly, care was required.
Will, Jonathan and I have climbed together over the last five years or so. We've been able to enjoy all sorts of climbing including some nice grade IV ice climbs. With all the ice around right now, we went for Minus Two Gully yesterday, the best of the Nevis gullies in many people's opinion, including mine. It was fabulous! Amazing ice, really good to climb and great for ice screws.
I tend to step left out of the bed of the gully as soon as I can and head straight up iced slabs (often better ice than the gully itself) to a fixed belay at about 55m. The second pitch is more straightforward, the third is an absolute winner, and the fourth will just about get you to NE Buttress and has another brilliant steep section. We abseiled down to First Platform then down Slingsby's Chimney so we didn't abseil past anyone else. Be wary of the fixed anchors you find in these gullies. There are rotten pegs and rusty wires that have been there for a very long time!
As we walked down to the CIC Hut we heard about a rescue call-out and went to help evacuate someone who had been avalanched in Number Five Gully. He had a broken leg but there were many MRT members from different teams in the area as well as doctors and other very helpful people. We got him to a helicopter landing spot where he was lifted away to hospital within an hour and a half of the avalanche.
Today we woke up to fresh snow at sea level and 10cm of it at 300m. It was clear as we walked in that it was going to be another day for avalanches and we found lots of wind slab in many locations around the base of Douglas Boulder. With a very cautious approach Jonathan, Will and I got onto Gutless and enjoyed this brilliant climb with a mixture of snow, ice, rock and turf in an old fashioned back and foot chimney. We got to the top of Douglas Boulder and wondered which way to go down to avoid the avalanche hazard. Both East Gully and West Gully had already avalanched and we decided to go down East Gully. We triggered several shooting cracks and one more release on the way down to Obsrvatory Gully and we were grateful to get to the CIC Hut.
All three Minus Gullies have had multiple ascents over the last few days as well as Left Hand and Right Hand Routes which are very rarely iced up and are highly sought after. All the big classic ice climbs are very icy and many of the more rarely forming ice climbs are good too. Mega Route X is fat and The Shroud has touched down. However, there is an extraordinary amount of snow that has arrived in the last three weeks, and much of it in the last two days. Expect many more avalanches in the next two days and make sure you stay out of the way on a ridge or buttress, low down and facing the wind. To make it worse, the wind is changing direction from north west today to south east over night and back to south tomorrow! Skiing might well be the best way to have fun in the snow right now!
Lots of ice on Ben Nevis.
Last Friday was a very wet day. Rain at all levels fell for much of the day. Sensible people stayed indoors. Saturday was cold though so all the wet snow froze into solid snow-ice. The rain did not last long enough to melt away much of the snow cover, so we now have a really good cover of very well frozen hard snow all over the place. We've had some fresh snow since and variable wind directions so there are areas of fresh soft snow but also lots of scoured slopes, especially on the North Face climbs on Ben Nevis.
So, Tower Ridge on Monday was pretty serious. Doug, Brad and I barely touched rock once we were above Douglas Gap. The ridge is cover in hard icy snow that is great for cramponing but if you were to get it wrong and slip, you'd be off like a shot. Protection is hard won as well being buried under icy snow and cracks being full of ice. To add to this, it was a blustery day with the wind gusting on many different directions, scouring the slopes and reducing the avalanche risk, but also blowing us around all over the place.
Once we made it to the top through blasts of sharp ice and cold flukey gusts of wind, the walk down was quite serene. The Red Burn was sheltered, had a nice cover of soft snow to ease the walking, and we had some beautiful stellar dendrites (snowflakes) gently falling onto our jackets. What a relief after a real battle on the ridge.
Today was mercifully calmer but just as cold, dry and with fewer snow showers. Doug, Brad and I watched a long line of people go up towards the Minus and Orion Faces so we turned right and were pleased to find The Curtain with nobody there. The ice on The Curtain is now taking good ice screws and is quite fat. A gentle walk down Ledge Route and across the coire to Vanishing Gully got us there just before a Belgium team. Vanishing Gully is super hooky right now after many ascents and also has really good ice. So, three uber-classic climbs for Doug on his first two days of Scottish winter climbing.
Lots of big ice climbs are starting to be climbed now. All three minus gullies have seen ascents, Orion Direct, Sickle and Hadrian's Wall are all fat and have been climbed, and Point Five Gully is very well formed but also under near constant spin drift! Mixed climbing is pretty tough with icy cracks and thick rime but the big ridges are all very well covered with hard snow. There are big cornices in quite a few places, especially Creag Coire na Ciste. Tune in to the excellent International Meet organised by Simon Richardson and Mountaineering Scotland for more updates - https://www.facebook.com/MountaineeringScotland/
Jeff is a climber from the US who did a lot of ice climbing in the 1980's in New England and Washington. He has recently gone back to climbing and is recalling his dreams from the 80's, one of which was to try the unique experience of ice climbing on Ben Nevis. So, after thirty years of waiting, Jeff finally got to have a go at some super classic Ben Nevis ice climbs this week, and it was a real pleasure to help him achieve his goal.
We got an early start on Tuesday but just missed out on being first in line to Climb The Curtain. Ice climbs on Ben Nevis do not get much more classic or sought after than this one. The climbing was typically Scottish with lovely soft snow-ice, very good for climbing but not so secure for protection. Jeff was straight onto it and breezed up the slab, getting used to modern technical ice axes and mono-points as he went, a very different experience to climbing with his gear from the 80's. We did the climb in three pitches, uncovering the in-situ anchor at the top of the second pitch. If you have 50m ropes it is best to do it this way; 60m ropes will reach to the rock on Ledge Route if you want to do the whole thing in two pitches.
The weather was windy but cold and dry so we went for another climb. On the other side of Coire na Ciste we found Vanishing Gully was free so we jumped on that route. More lovely, soft snow-ice made the climbing very friendly but the protection very dubious. A 55m pitch on this gets into the best cave belay on Ben Nevis. Steep moves above make up the crux of the climb and another long pitch lands you at a simple two pitch abseil down 1938 Route back to the start. What a brilliant first tatse of ice climbing on Nevis, two mega-classic routes on a really good day!
Yesterday was supposed to be the best day of the week with a ridge of high pressure settling things down. It did but only for a couple of hours before the next weather front piled in from the west. So, Jeff and I got another early start and we beat the crowds to the Minus Face. This was a popular destination yesterday morning with several teams trying to get onto a climb and get back down early, before the change in the weather. Jeff and I got to Minus Three Gully first and really enjoyed the climbing. It's an easy enough pitch into another cave belay then a very spicy pull through past the icicle that hangs over the entrance of the cave. Two more brilliant pitches of lovely climbing in a superb place got us up to NE Buttress a short way above the First Platform, just as the weather turned.
We did one long abseil onto the First Platform traverse line and followed this into Coire Leis. The wind had been eroding the snow on the this face which I was grateful for to reduce the risk of avalanche. I was not grateful for the wind blowing snow right in our faces as we struggled to see what direction to go in! Proper Ben Nevis conditions is what Jeff expected though and that's what we got yesterday! Ben Nevis ice climbing had a lot to live up to for Jeff and we got everything he thought it would be. Three super-classic climbs in great condition on two very nice days. Sometimes, things work out very nicely.
We have had a succession of cycles of heavy snowfall, a brief rapid thaw with rain and a subsequent refreeze. This is the perfect weather for building snow-ice on Ben Nevis. We had another one last night and yet another forecast over tomorrow and Saturday. Right now, lots of climbs are looking very good. Most of the big classic climbs are very well formed and some of the more rarely forming climbs such as Minus One Gully, Mega Route X, The Shroud and Gemini are forming up nicely. Few of these climbs have been climbed since the weather has been so bad we have not been able to get to them! However, when the weather settles down a bit, I think we will be in for a real treat, a feast of ice climbing in the gentle Spring weather. From what I saw of NE Buttress and Tower Ridge, the big ridges are very well covered in good snow and excellent to climb. Harder/steeper mixed climbs have a thick coating of icy rime and ice in the cracks so will be a bit more challenging. The big snow gullies and coires are very full of snow so skiing will go on well into the Spring as well.
Skills, drills and all the thrills
Sarah and Rosie are up in Fort William for a few days to brush up on their winter skills before heading out in the Scottish mountains on their own. Yesterday we went up towards Stob Ban in the Mamores to find some good snow and shelter from the wind to go through the basic skills, including kicking and cutting steps, using our axe to stop a slip and lots of avalanche awareness. We were then ready to move on to a day of navigation today.
After a brief session indoors we went to Beinn a' Chrulaiste in Glen Coe. Being fairly rounded it is a great place to practice some nav without having to go too high. And yet, despite being only 857m in height, it gave us a proper Scottish experience and even a bit of white room navigation at times. There was a cornice forming around the top of the north east coire as we approached the summit and it was tricky to see the edge, so it just goes to show that the smaller mountains should never be underestimated.
The ladies did a fantastic job and confidently took us to the summit in some tough conditions. Tomorrow they'll use all of their new skills to plan a route based on the conditions and safely take us around it. It's looking like another snowy and windy one!
The white room was stingy today.
The ice on Ben Nevis and most other mountains of Scotland needs stormy weather to build. Recently, we have had a lot of very stormy wether with rapid changes in temperature and lots of precipitation. This is all perfect for turning snow into snow-ice and we are starting to get a lot of it on Ben Nevis. I met Dylan and Tom at the CIC Hut with the idea of climbing Tower Ridge. It was too windy for that but plan B turned out to be a real winner.
We went into Coire na Ciste and saw huge avalanche debris from a slide out of Number Five Gully last night. The temperature rose during the night and triggered a few big avalanches. It was already cooling down by the time we were there though and there was eroded snow on the slope beneath Number Three Gully Buttress. This gave me the confidence to carry on up to the start of Thompsons Route, kepping off to the side of the runout zone of Number Three Gully.
Thompsons Route is full of nice soft snow-ice. The climbing is lovely but not overly protected without a lot of digging to find cracks in the rock. I did place a few ice screws though. Intense showers of hail made it very uncomfortable at time sand the spindrift was pretty full-on at times. In between the showers, it was quite calm and very pleasant. The climbing was certainly very good fun indeed and gave us just the right mix of challenge, fear and fun!
Mega Route X is just about fat enough to climb, although you would want a much colder day to climb it. We were wet on the climb today despite the freezing level being down at the CIC Hut. On top, it was very white, windy and stingy. Goggles were essential! More of the same tomorrow. It's turning into a proper winter.
Blue skies at last.
Ben Nevis and all the mountains north of the Central Highlands were spectacular today. The wind died away at last during the morning leaving us with a beautifully calm and sunny afternoon. Not many people were out on the North Face due to the huge amount of snow that got blown in to the coires and gullies over the last few days and there were only a few places you could get to safely. So David and I enjoyed a rare quiet day in the sunshine on brilliant ice climbs on Ben Nevis.
We went to climb Vanishing Gully on the west side of Tower Ridge close to Douglas Boulder. This is a brilliant short climb with the most perfect belay in a cave half way up. The ice was narrow on the first pitch and not very thick but all fine to climb. The second pitch was on really good solid ice, as steep as ever, but with the chance of some cheekybridging on the rock on the right to take the sting off the gradient. We abseiled down after being very happy to see the snow bowl above the climb was scoured clear of any soft snow.
For a second climb we went for Fawlty Towers, right next to the abseil down from Vanishing Gully. The left chimnety is iced up and garde II but the right hand option is about grade IV on good ice as well. We did this and veered left into more interesting ground all the way to the crest of Tower Ridge. We walked off the traverse ledge towards Observatory Gully and again we were happy to find solid, icy snow instead of deep windslab.
All the gullies are very full of soft snow now and the coires have very good cover down to the CIC Hut. It's looking good for the spring skiing. One team made it up Ledge Route but had to cross some deep drifts of fresh snow to do so. Up in the ridge it looked lovely. Tower Ridge was also climbed and it looked like hard work to put in a track. Quite a bit of ice has been forming from dribbles coming out of the older snow. One team was high in Zero Gully today, Hadrians Wall Direct and Point Five Gully are good to climb, Orion Direct might be about there and the Minus Gullies are shaping up. Getting to these climbs is the tricky bit without being avalanched. The snow is settling down and after a couple of rapid thaw freeze cycles over the next two days, it should all be a bit more stable.
There is ice to climb that you can get to safely. Around the base of Carn Dearg Buttress, on the First Platform (such as Green Hollow Route) and along the side of Tower Ridge as far as Italian Climb.The strong winds will be back with us tomorrow and for the next few days though.
More stormy weather with lots of fresh snow has been with us so far this week. Sunday gave us a very rapid temperature spike that got the fresh snow of Saturday a bit wet. It then cooled down during Sunday night, freezing a crust on the snow, and we got some fresh snow and graupel. David and I enjoyed North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor along with a few other people. We fouind some very helpful snow-ice and it was cold and dry so we stayed comfortable, despite the wind and heavy spindrift on the route. We abseiled off due to the wind and tried to keep out of everyone's way (not completely successfully, sorry!).
Today was windier from the start and the snow is accumulating much more. David and I took the long plod up to Stob Coire nan Lochan which took a good 45 minutes lomnger than normal due to the deep soft snow and big swirls of wind in the coire. The rocks are disapearing under the fresh snow but the new snow is quite blocky - windslab with a couple of weak layers underneath. We were happy to walk up to the crag but we certainly did not want to descend Broad Gully afterwards.
David and I climbed Raeburn's Route on Central Buttress. We added a bit more spice to the first pitch and found the second pitch under quite a bit of snow. There is some useful snow-ice here too and the climbing was mostly very nice. We were sheltered from the wind on the crag and prepared for the battering we were going to get once we topped out. It was definitely a goggles day on top!
Ice is forming quite quickly in Glen Coe. The Screen has some good ice on it as well as The Smear. Streams are freezing up as well. On Ben Nevis there is ice growing quite quickly but there is also a lot of snow being blown into the gullies. Buttresses are best for the moment but once the snow settles down after a good thaw and refreeze, the ice will be very nice.
Dolly Parton sang, "If you want to see the rainbow, you've gotta put up with a bit of rain." Yesterday was a bit wet and soft with no views other than the inside of the white room. Even so, lots of people were out climbing on Ben Nevis and having a nice time. Rintje, Pete and I enjoyed the Central Gullies on Ben Nevis and found really quite nice ice which even took a few ice screws. We also found a really helpful exit past the cornice, a little coridor between the rock and the very overhanging snow. Number Four Gully got us back down very easily into the gloom.
Today was a different experience altogether. The damp weather of earlier this week gave way to a clear night and a calm, sunny day full of blue skies. Despite the strong temperature inversion the snow froze and was pretty solid everywhere. The views went on forever and it was bone dry all day. It was a day well worth waiting for and made up for a lot of wet, windy and warm days we have endured so far this winter.
A lot of the mid-grade ice climbs were climbed yesterday and today. Glovers Chimney, Beam Me Up Scotty, Number Two Gully Buttress, Number Two Gully, Comb Gully Buttress, Comb Gully, Green Gully, Number Three Gully Buttress, Thompson's Route, South Gully, Creag Coire na Ciste Central Gullies among others. The ice is a bit cruddy in places still and protection is not plentiful but in general the climbing is pretty good.
Of the harder ice climbs, Smith's Route was climbed today by the icicle variation, Hadrian's Wall Direct was climbed yesterday (looks a bit thin to me!) and there was a team in Point Five Gully today (I'm not sure how they got on!). There is a thin smear of ice on Mega Route X and Boomers Requiem looks good.
The big snow gullies are very full and there is good snow cover down to 900m or so. Number Four Gully and Number Three Gully are both pretty simple to descend right now.
The big ridges are well filled in and climbing very nicely. There was rime on the rocks today but it was thick, icy rime and mixed climbing would be tricky. There was a team climbing Gargoyle Wall today and seeming to get on pretty well.
Rintje and I wanted to climb Green Gully but Guy's team got there first so we swerved into Comb Gully, which is just as good and had nobody else in it. Really nice climbing, with no cornice and a very easy exit, got us to the sunshine on the plateau in good time so we descended Number Three Gully for another lap. Just down Number Three Gully you can get into South Gully very quickly and this gave us some more very nice ice climbing up to the very large cornice. This one had no easy exit! So, with a bit of down climbing back to the last belay, I went out left and found a cornice free exit about 20m off to the side of the top of the gully.
Rintje has been coming here to climb in winter since 2010 and we have had our fair share of challenging weather. The last couple of winters have not been very good to us either so today was a rare treat. What a difference a bit of sunshine and solid snow make to the experiuence! We made the most of it by going up over the summit to soak up the views and we went down into Coire Leis which is simple to do if you drop in about 50m before the cairn. Coming back down this way means you get to see the whole of the North Face which was quite a sight to see today!
No moon shine but Moonshadow.
Yesterday I had so much fun climbing Twisting Grooves that I went back up to Stob Coire nan Lochan today for more. I am climbing with Rintje this week, who has been coming here for climbing for eleven years. He has seen the full spectrum of climbing conditions in that decade! Today was pretty good, a very nice day but only average climbing conditions. We started up Twisting Grooves and went into Moonshadow, a classic combination at IV,5. If the Right branch of Twisting Gully is iced up you can start up that to get onto Moonshadow but there was no ice today so we stuck with the mixed climbing.
We followed Niels and Chris up the first pitch of Twisting Grooves which was a bit easier than leading it first yesterday. The hooks are more obvious and the ledges cleaned off. It's then easy to get across to Moionshadow which takes the huge and obvious groove on th eright. It is really turfy to start off with and has plenty of what would be loose blocks in the summr. The turf was sufficiently solid today, but certainly didn't inspire much confidence. A cautious aproach was best! The top chimney of Moonshadow is brilliant though. Solid rock with brilliant hooks and great fun, gymnastic climbing all the way to the top of the crag.
Other teams were climbing Dorsal Arete plus the direct start, Twisting Grooves, Raeburn's Route on Central Buttress and Ordinary Route on Summit Buttress . We walked down Broad Gully which was untracked. It would be amazing on skis!
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.