It has been a tricky week demanding lots of careful planning, route choice and studying of the forecasts. Three nights in a row gave us thaws with a refreeze at dawn or during the day. Lots more snow fell, plenty of wind and general storminess kept us battered and embraced. It's mentally exhausting, as well as physically demanding, and I love it. But I am looking forward to a more settled period of weather.
On Monday, Mike and I were climbing Tower Ridge in improving weather until Mike became unwell and we had to go down. It was a real shame because it turned into a lovely afternoon, but these things happen sometimes and being ill on the traverse of Tower Gap is not ideal. Descending is a skills in itself and we got a good bit of practice. On climbs like an t'Aonach Eagach in Glen Coe there are many sections that are downclimbed, and we don't often get much practice. Climbing down is very often faster than abseiling, especially if there are several of you.
Tuesday was windy and not very cold. Wednesday was extremely windy, not very cold and very wet. Will and Jonathan had a nasty reminder of the challenges of gearing up in the wind and rain at just above freezing before we climbed Twisting Gully/Grooves in Coire nan Lochan. It was all a bit soggy, cold and wet. The crux of the day was getting out of the van in the morning but we were glad that we did. It was type 2 fun, but it was very well worth doing.
Today was very cold and very windy at times. We woke to snow at sea level and it didn't warm up much at all. Nobody ventured high on Ben Nevis due to the winds and fresh snow building up, so the west flank of Tower Ridge was popular. Vanishing Gully was fat and busy so we went over to 1931 Route. This is great fun and well worth looking up. You go underneath the first chockstone on some lovely icy steps, then under or over the second one depending on the build up of snow. There was not so much snow, so we went underneath but there is only just enough room to squeeze through if you exhale and push/pull at the same time. We were glad of some caving experience!
Tomorrow looks like it will be the day of the week. There is a lot of snow that has built up above 1000m now so it will be hard to get onto any of the big classic ice climbs. Point Five Gully is now fat, Hadrian's Wall Direct looks mega and I'm pretty sure that Orion Direct is good to climb as well. However, there is a significant avalanche hazard getting to any of these and I will certainly give it some time to settle before I go near them. The great ridges now all have some brilliant snow cover and usable snow-ice. Steep mixed climbs are pretty icy and will be hard work to clear. The big snow gullies are very full and general snow cover is pretty good.
Psychology of Winter Climbing
There are so many variables in winter climbing that it can be a daunting experience and quite hard to progress. So let’s try to work at these variables one by one to push up a grade and get into the climbing you really want to do.
Climbing in winter brings with it lots and lots of anxiety and stresses, things that play on your mind and hold you back. So, we should focus thought and energy on each one of these to reduce the anxiety attached to it, and to bring down the overall anxiety level. If your mind is not working away on whether there will be a cornice at the top, you will have less anxiety and more cognitive bandwidth for the stuff you need it for, the climbing right in front of you.
Chip away at all these stressors, assess them and box them away in your mind when you know they are now sorted or it is not worth worrying about them right now. By doing these things specifically, you will clear your mind and be able to focus on the climbing.
Is it in condition?
To answer this you need to know what good conditions are for that route. If it’s a mixed route, is it best with a coating of rime that brushes off with a wipe of your glove or does it need little patches of solid snow on ledges and frozen turf? If it’s an ice climb, does it need many weeks of freeze thaw action or is it a cascade ice climb that just needs a cold snap of a week?
Do some research, speak with people who have done the climb and work out what makes up optimal conditions, what pattern of weather will create these and then wait for them. Read up on the blogs to see what types of climbs have been done. The internet is useful for this but remember if someone says they had a very hard time on a climb it might mean either that the climb is not in good condition or that person is not very strong at that grade.
Later this year, the new edition of my Winter Climbs - Ben Nevis and Glen Coe will be in the shops and it will have lots of useful information to help you with the different styles of climbs, what style each route is and what it takes to bring each style of climb into good condition.
Am I Good Enough?
If you’re going from grade IV to grade V, first off climb lots of grade IV routes so you know you are happy on these in a variety of conditions. If you can get up a grade IV on a good day with perfect weather and it feels tough you are not ready for grade V.
Place protection on your grade IV climbs in tricky places to replicate what it will be like on grade V climbs.
Do not place as much protection as you can on the easy bits. Get used to some longer run outs on sections you know you can climb.
Get your belay management really slick so that hand-overs are done in a couple of minutes, not 10 or 15 minutes.
Get a buddy (or a guide) to lead you up some grade V climbs to experience them as a second so you know you can do the climbing.
Learn as much as you can about avalanche hazards, but on the day you push your grade do not let it be a factor that will contribute to your potential anxiety! Wait for a day when there is Low or Moderate avalanche hazard. This is often in the spring for ice climbs which is often when they are at their best anyway. Mixed climbs can be on buttresses facing away from the avalanche hazard so choose a venue that faces the prevailing wind at the time. Less anxiety about avalanches will mean less anxiety overall, and more cognitive bandwidth for the climbing.
Going through the whole day in your mind before you get there is a very useful thing to do. Practice visualising the feel, sounds and smells of everything from packing your bag, walking in, approaching the climb, stepping on to the climb, powering through the crux moves and reaching the top with energy and time to spare.
Also visualise the things that might go slightly wrong, how this will feel and then how you can get yourself back on track. For example, you might visualise dropping an ice screw, feeling that anger and annoyance, getting calm again and having the confidence to carry on without it.
Visualise each pitch after looking at it. Work out the tricky bits, the easier bits and where to place protection. Plan out where and when to place protection and have the gear ready in the right place on your harness.
Visualise the crux move on each pitch, the sequence of moves and pulling over it feeling strong.
Some more settled wintry weather has been a blessing for those of us in pursuit of seasonal adventures. Last weekend we had a lot of snow, much of which melted away in the rain on Monday, but certainly not all of it. Further snow arrived for the rest of this week on very strong winds and all the way down to 400m or so. This afternoon gave us a slight improvement and we even had some sunshine. Buachaille Etive Mor looked beautiful. However, the fierce winds and squalls have been slightly testing at times. Tomorrow, Friday, looks calmer so our faces will get a wee rest from the battering.
Matteo and I have been having fun on a Classic Winter Climbing trip. We started out on Monday by climbing Curved Ridge in deep snow, light rain and strong winds. It's a lovely climb and a great way to get reacquainted with crampons and mixed climbing. It was clearly not too testing for Matteo, apart from getting quite wet.
On Tuesday we went to Ben Nevis and climbed a very soft Green Gully. Serious (due to very poor protection) but quite simple climbing and lots of spindrift as the temperature dropped and fresh snow came in on showers.
On Wednesday we went to Stob Coire nan Lochan and climbed Raeburn's Buttress (AKA Central Buttress Ordinary Route) which we climbed with a non-ordinary step off a tower high up on the route to add a little spice. It was very cold and quite windy. A crazy squall hit us as we started to walk down, blowing us sideways and making it tricky to see where we were going.
Today we went back to Buachaille Etive Mor to climb North Buttress which was lovely. It was cold again and the wind was slapping on the rocks all around.
When it is cold and windy, the snow is dry when it falls and the wind can move it around a lot. So, it does not tend to collect in as many areas. We have soft snow in the few places where it has been properly sheltered. On Buachaille Etive Mor, the snow is collecting in small patches dotted all around the place.
The descent into Coire na Tulaich was OK today for us by walking down just to the right of the gully as we looked down. The gully is holding a strip of soft snow all the way down but it was easily avoidable. Lower down, the gorge has snow on its side and it was quite straight forward to walk down it, making the walk out nice and easy.
Since the snow has been blown away, there are many areas with no snow and lots of loose rocks. On Raeburn's Route and on North Buttress we found plenty of loose rocks on ledges not very well held in place.
A lot more snow has collected in Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. There were a few avalanches there today and Douglas Boulder was a popular place to climb for the people that managed to fight their way in. A few people decided, understandably, that the café was a better place to be!
It looks like we will have a warmer day on Saturday before it goes cold again for Sunday and next week. The January storms were delayed by the big high pressure, but they are here now. Snow is building up and ice is growing.
If you would like to enjoy some grade IV climbing on 1st, 2nd and 3rd March please get in touch. We have a long standing customer whose climbing partner is no longer able to join him. £150 per day for three days for classic winter climbing like we have been enjoying this week, but less windy hopefully!
In the snow-thaw-freeze balance, this week has been too heavy on the thaw with not enough snow and freeze. Sunday and Monday were lovely, cold with some fresh snow. There was a bit of mixed climbing and several ice climbs on offer, even though there is not much snow in the gullies and the ice is thin. The quality of the ice was very good though. I climbed Green Gully on Sunday and Comb Gully Buttress with Tommy on Monday. The Cascade looked OK and a team climbed Comb Gully.
Since then it has been thawing, reducing the snow cover and volume of ice, and increasing the volume of water in the Allt a'Mhuilinn.
Yesterday Tommy and I climbed Bobrun on the Little Brenva Face in Coire Leis, Ben Nevis. It is grade II in the guidebook but with little snow at the base and by linking together the steeper bits Tommy and I enjoyed 200m of climbing that would be IV,5. It was very wet though, so I didn't take any photos. Richard climbed Green Gully and the big snow gullies and Ledge Route all had plenty of people in them
Today was even wetter and windier. Not many people ventured out and that was probably a good decision. Tommy, Alex and I did go ut, we managed to get across the Allt a'Mhuillin above the CIC Hut and we climbed Number Two Gully. Rock fall and ice fall is a concern in thaws like this, as well as getting on to some ice that turns out to be mush with water running down it. We climbed Number Two Gully which is a very atmospheric grade II snow gully. We then went down Raeburn's Easy Route a short way to climb Experts Choice, a nice pitch of grade III or IV ice. There are several lines you can follow here and the ice is pretty fat.
The big snow gullies are full and cornice free (but fresh snow is falling currently), snow cover in the coire goes down to the lochans, the major ridges have some snow but less than there was a couple of weeks ago, and rime might well be growing on the rocks for mixed climbing, as well as ice in the cracks.
The expert's choice today was rubber gloves plus double waterproof trousers and jackets! I was only wet from the wrists to the elbows where water running down the ice went into my sleeves!
As I write this at 6.30pm, the temperature dropped 5 degrees in one hour and it will be much colder over the next few days with a little thaw freeze as well.
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.