Snow and ice on Ben Nevis.
The great weather is continuing to bring lots of sunshine to Lochaber, The Outdoor Capital of the UK. We have been enjoying wonderful conditions for rock climbing, mountaineering, walking, biking and just about everything. But, it has now gone seriously colder. On Tuesday night the temperature dropped and the soft, soggy snow froze solid.
If you are thinking about walking up Ben Nevis at the weekend on any route, it is essential that you have winter boots, crampons and an ice axe. You will also need lots of warm clothing, hats, gloves and good shell clothing. If it gets cloudy, it will be hard to navigate since the trail is covered in snow from corner 6 at 1100m. It is seriously wintry on top despite what it might feel like in the glen.
If you are going ice climbing, there are lots of classic climbs in good condition. People have been climbing Zero Gully, Hadrian's Wall Direct, Point Five Gully, Indicator Wall, Smith's Route, Tower Scoop, Glover's Chimney, The White Line, The Cascade and Expert's Choice, Comb Gully, Green Gully and many other climbs are looking good. Orion Direct is broken at the crux pitch unfortunately.
Many, but not all, of the cornices fell off in the warmer weather, but what is left is now very well frozen in place. It's easy to get out of Number Four Gully, Number Three Gully is OK on the left and it's the same in Number Two Gully.
The great ridges are OK too but they have lost a bit of snow low down. Tower Ridge was lovely on Monday and it has not changed since. Castle Ridge and NE Buttress are a bit dry but Ledge Route is mostly on snow.
Did I say it has gone cold again? It has, and it's a bit of a shock to the system after al the warm sunshine. So, don't get caught out. Take lots of warm clothing, hats and gloves, as well as good waterproof shell gear to keep the wind out. Here's a reminder of some useful things to take with you.
Have a great weekend.
Am Buachaille mini guide.
Way up in the north west, within sight of Cape Wrath, lies one of the finest beaches in the country. Sandwood Bay is a peaceful paradise, a two mile strip of white sand facing the wild ocean. Just along from the beach is Am Buachaille, a beautiful stack of sandstone standing proud of the headland, out in the sea. It sits, listing to seaward, on a pedestal that submerges beneath the waves at mid-tide and stays underneath for half of the tidal cycle. Climbing Am Buachaille is a wonderful experience, a great adventure despite the quality of the climbing!
Firstly, get the tides right. The stack is on a tidal base which is separated from the mainland by a sea channel of a few metres. This itself is about 50m out from the mainland cliff over more tidal slabs. As the tide is dropping, you need to be ready to swim the channel as soon as possible so that you can climb the three pitch route, abseil off and swim back across the channel before the tide comes back in again. There is enough time, but you do need to get the tides right.
Tide tables can be found on various apps and websites, or by buying a wee book. For planning far in advance this will cost a couple of pounds and it is the Lochinver or Kinlochbervie tide table that you want. Find a spring tide (a low low-tide) that is at lunchtime or early afternoon. It's a long way to get there so you will probably be best to drive north the day before.
There is a good car park for Sandwood Bay that is maintained by John Muir Trust. JMT also maintains the path to the beach and they do an excellent job. Become a member to support their work.
Set off four hours before low tide. The walk (or bike ride) along the track is 4.5km followed by another 1.5km walk across untracked heather to the headland. Follow the track to it's high point at 90m, just south of Druim na Buainn, then head north west through a slight col, past a lochain to the headland.
This is the first test of nerve. You will look down on the stack, still washed by the waves at the base, seemingly miles out to sea, and wonder how on earth this is going to work. Don't be put off.
From the headland walk back east along the top of the north facing cliff to find a slight path that goes down blocks and steep grass to sea level. The path goes down diagonally left, heading towards the stack (west) and is steep. At the bottom there is a very loose section that is unpleasant. Then follow incredibly slippery boulders along the beach for a couple of hundred metres to the stack.
Get changed. The swim is obligatory, you can't set up a tyrolean traverse. Take with you some dry bags to put all your gear in. Once one person has swum across, throw an end of rope across and use the rope to transfer bags of gear across, holding them up out of the water. Once you are all across with all the gear, get dressed into your climbing gear and find the start of the route.
The usual climb is up a corner on the left side of the landward face. I think HVS 4c is about right. The protection is spaced and there is ground-fall potential from the move to get to the first belay. A rack of medium cams and big rocks will do. This is the second test of nerve, starting climbing.
Pitch one climbs the open corner and steps right, up the wall and steps back left to the belay in a left facing corner. There is a lot of very old, corroded gear in the corner which you can back up with a small hex.
Pitch two climbs rightwards out of the corner around the arete. It's a wee move to step around but once you are on the front face again it's all pretty good. Find a crack to climb up and belay underneath a very steep chimney.
Pitch three is very good. It climbs the very steep chimney which seems outrageous. The quality of the rock is not amazing on the first two pitches so the idea of pulling on overhanging spikes does not feel right, but the rock is much better on this pitch and it all works out. Easier climbing gets you to the top.
One long pitch of abseiling will get you down to the bottom. Please do not add any more rope to the anchors without cleaning away some of it. As is typical, people often add rope to the anchors and none is ever taken away, leaving a huge pile of rotting rope on the top. It's only ever us climbers who go up this thing so it is down to us to tidy up after ourselves.
Don't celebrate too much yet because you have to reverse the gear haulage and swim back across the channel before the tide comes in again. The stack is 60m or so out from the mainland cliff so once the tide is up over the flat rocks at the base of the stack it would be a long swim back to shore, or a long cold night waiting for the next low tide.
The climbing is on sandy, sloping ledges with spaced protection and there are often fulmars on the stack that will vomit on you. We should try not to disturb the birds but they make a welcome distraction from the slightly scary climbing. This route is not climbed for the sake of the quality of the climbing (although in sections it is quite good). But the package as a whole is a fantastic adventure in one of the furthest away corners of our beautiful country. It's a wonderful excuse to go to Sandwood Bay and you can always do some really high quality climbing at Sheigra while you are there.
If you want to climb this and a couple of other stacks (Old Man of Stoer and Old Man of Hoy) you might be interested in our Sea Stack Odyssey which aims to climb all three in six days, 13th to 18th June 2022.
Springtime on Ben Nevis.
In just over six weeks we will start our regular Guided Group Walks up Ben Nevis. These run all summer, every Sunday and Wednesday and cost just £90 per person. They are a great way for summer walkers to get some help to try to reach the summit of Ben Nevis. However, looking at the depth of snow on the top half of the mountain right now, we will certainly be walking over snow for the first few walks in May!
This is normally the case. In the spring when flowers are blooming in the glens and warm sunshine washes over the woodland, the summit is still in the icy grip of winter. Reaching the summit in May very often takes unprepared people by surprise. Snow on the summit covers the path making it very difficult to follow in the mist, the temperature can be very cold and snow overhangs the tops of the crags in dangerous cornices which are very difficult to see from above.
Walking up Ben Nevis in the spring is very often a brilliant experience and the best time of year to do so. However, the winter snow on the ground does demand extra equipment and skills to keep an ascent safe enough. Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team has, unfortunately, had to help a lot of people recently who did not have the best boots and equipment.
With snow on the ground you will need winter walking boots that are rated to take crampons, as well as crampons and an ice axe each. All of these can be hired in Fort William from these excellent providers:
In good visibility, navigating up and back down Ben Nevis can seem quite straightforward. It is a busy mountain and there is often a well trodden path to the summit, as well as cairns above 1150m about every 50m along the way. When you can see as far as Skye to the west and Cairngorm to the east, it is not surprising that you should be able to find your way easily. Even then, the path above 900m or so is usually covered in snow between December and May and can be nearly impossible to find and follow. If there is no boot trail through the snow, it can be quite confusing, even in good visibility. And the summit is only clear about 20% of the time in winter.
You might read comments saying "just follow the path" which are fine when there is no snow, but until it has all melted away you will need to be able to navigate properly.
In the cloud, when there is no definition between the snow on the ground and the cloud all around you it is a very serious place, and navigation skills need to be very accurate. The skills you need are to be able to follow a compass bearing accurately, and to measure the distance you walk along the ground by counting your paces. With these skills, you can then follow your progress on the map and plan the next section of walking, as long as you are very used to using maps and identifying features on the ground that are marked on the map. Of course, most features will be covered by the snow, just to make it even harder!
Here is our guide to help with the navigation skills you will need.
Of course, on the summit of Ben Nevis, when everything is white, is not the best place or time to learn navigation skills! Do some preparation, practice in a safe place first, get some training before you need to use the skills for real.
The hazards on Ben Nevis are very real. It is not a tourist attraction, it is a mountain that many tourists are attracted to.
But it is still a mountain with real dangers and the very real chance of injury or worse. Please be prepared, take it seriously, and be rewarded all the more for the effort that you put into your climb.
Over the weekend we joined forces with Girls on Hills to run our first Women's Winter Festival. After a big Covid shaped spanner was thrown into our plans to launch the event last year it was absolutely fantastic to get the festival going this year, and to have so many keen and capable women join us for the various events.
Over the two days, courses run by Girls on Hills and ourselves included:
SATURDAY 12TH MARCH
Kicking off on day one, we were fortunate to have fairly calm weather, although there was a few very wintry squalls to keep things suitably Scottish! After a chat about kit, weather forecasts and avalanche forecasts, Kirsty and one of the Winter Hill Walking Skills teams headed to Aonach Mor, while I took the other team to the North Face of Ben Nevis. The aim for the first day of the Winter Skills course was to introduce basic skills such as using crampons and an ice axe, ice axe arrests, route planning and avalanche awareness. Both teams did brilliantly and were ready to put all their new skills into practice on a mountain journey on day two.
Keri took her group of Winter Trail Runners to Aonach Mor where they were able to quickly get onto the snow. There, they put their microspikes to the test and worked out the limitations of their winter kit before enjoying a run over Sgurr Finniosgaig and Meall Beag, then back down to the Nevis Range base station.
All four of our climbing teams opted for the North Face of Ben Nevis, with Becky and Sally, and Rachel, Lindsey and Bea heading to Garadh Gully. Julie, Katie and Cat, and Emma, Donna and Ellie went to Number Two Gully Buttress. The ladies on these courses all had varying degrees of winter climbing and mountaineering experience, generally as seconds, and were keen to develop their leading skills so they can start getting on the sharp end. Saturday saw them brushing up on gear placements, belays and movement skills to get them ready for leading on Sunday.
SUNDAY 13TH MARCH
Sunday's weather forecast wasn't ideal with 50 to 60 mph winds suggested. Fortunately the snow conditions were more favourable so we had plenty of options to try and find shelter from the wind.
Keri and the Descending Performance group made use of many of the descent options on Cow Hill to hone their technique on a variety of terrain. This great little hill just above Fort William has everything from rough landy track to slippery muddy path to pathless tussocky heather. Plenty to get to grips with!
Emma and her team of navigators also took advantage of the fantastic Cow Hill with all it's contour squiggles to brush up on their skills. Accurate navigation is vital in the mountains, and particularly in the winter when you can be faced with zero visibility. Practising skills such as contour interpretation, pacing, timing and following a bearing in a friendly and inconsequential environment is a great way to make sure you know what to do when it really matters.
Both Winter Skills teams opted for a day in Glencoe on day two. Kirsty's group went for the Wee Buachaille (Buachaille Etive Beag) where they practised more movement skills on the steeper ground up to pt. 902, and then got themselves out the wind by digging some emergency shelters. My team were psyched to try a circular walk where they could practice a bit of navigation so we planned a route with a few options, depending on how the wind was when we got up high. We found shelter by heading into the Lost Valley and up towards the south west ridge of Stob Coire nan Lochan. The wind was lighter than expected so we were able to quickly tag the summit before descending off the north west ridge just as the squalls started to pick up.
After a big day on Saturday, two of the climbing teams had tired legs on Sunday morning so a visit to the Ice Factor and an afternoon at Onich Slabs was a good choice. They practised lots of movement skills and climbing techniques on ice and rock, so they're ready to go when they aim for their next mountain route. The other two groups both headed to Stob Coire nan Lochan, with Emma's team going for Dorsal Arete, and Julie's team opting for NC Gully. Ellie, Donna, Katie and Cat all had a turn on the sharp end, leading at least one pitch and absolutely crushing it!
What an incredible weekend!! For me, one stand out memory from the weekend was listening to one woman tell me on Saturday morning that she lacks confidence in the mountains. Then on Sunday afternoon I watched her lead the way confidently up a steep snow slope, 100% at ease with where she was and what she was doing. So awesome! The purpose of the weekend was to empower, encourage and enthuse women to explore the mountains in winter. I really hope that this weekend has done that, and everyone who took part has gone away with new skills and a massive boost to their confidence. It has been an absolute pleasure to share two days in the mountains with such an amazing and strong group of women.
Big thank you to all the participants and instructors, Girls on Hills for collaborating, and Ellis Brigham in Fort William for hosting. Hope to see you all on a mountain soon!
The 2023 Women's Winter Festival will take place on the 10th to 12th March. See you there!
Women's Winter Festival
The Scottish Highlands in winter can be wild and intimidating, but they can also be awe-inspiring and beautiful. With the right skills and knowledge, you can make these mountains your playground throughout the winter months.
This weekend we are teaming up with Girls on Hills to bring you a weekend of new experiences, new skills and a chance to push yourself physically or mentally, in a safe and supportive environment.
Whether you are new to snowy mountains or are an experienced winter climber looking to perfect your technique, the Women’s Winter Festival has something for you. Join us for a weekend of building confidence and having fun in a unique celebration of the great outdoors!
We have a huge range of workshops taking place as part of the inaugural Women's Winter Festival on 12th & 13th March 2022.
We are so looking forward to hearing from Becky Coles on Friday night, 7pm at Ellis Brigham in Fort William.
Climbing all the alpine 4000m peaks has yet to be completed by an all-women's team. Over two trips, one on skis in the Spring, the other throughout the summer, we climbed 56 peaks. She named it Project Alpine Spirit and discovered a fascinating history of women who shunned social norms and climbed in the Alps from the Victorian era to the present day. The talk tells the story of our journey and introduces some of the women who were at the forefront of Alpinism.
We have a couple of last minute spaces available. Get in touch, the weather looks good for the weekend!
Storms, snowfall and thaw-freeze cycles are all tough to endure but we need the bad weather to produce good ice. We now have some very good ice!
On Tuesday of this week the sun was shining, it was cold and calm. Many teams enjoyed climbing big classic ice climbs such as Orion Direct, Point Five Gully, Hadrian's Wall Direct, Observatory Buttress etc. I'm not sure about the Minus Gullies, but Vanishing Gully, Italian Right Hand, The Cascade, Green Gully, Comb Gully and many many more climbs are well iced and good to climb. The great ridges are also very good, icy mixed climbs are excellent, snow cover is good and there are some cornices but they are not terrifying.
This week I climbed Stringfellow with Ali on Monday. I have been wanting to climb this for many years and we picked an excellent day. Lots of ice on the rocks really helped the climbing, protection was OK, and it is a fantastic line on a great bit of Ben Nevis.
Tuesday was sunny and cold, and busy. Bob, Tony and I went to Coire Leis to stay away from trouble since we have climbed most of the big classics already. Cresta Direct gave us some lovely ice climbing in the sunshine! We had the whole coire to ourselves and the view over CMD Arete to Aonach Beag. The Little Brenva Face feels like a very different place to anyone else on Ben Nevis and is well worth visiting.
Wednesday started out sunny and frosty, but the strong SE wind barrelled down the Allt a'Mhuilinn and made it quite a cold, serious day. Tony, Bob and I went to climb a really cool route called Fatal Error on Pinnacle Buttress of The Tower, close to Stringfellow. This is an icy mixed climb that is really worth hunting down. The main pitch gives a long lead up a gully full of icy snow which is steep but you can get a foot out to a wee ledge every time to take the weight off your arms. Four long pitches of really interesting climbing lands you on Tower Ridge at the foot of The Great Tower. We chose to continue the Eastern Traverse into Observatory Gully to descend due to the strong winds.
I must admit that my enthusiasm for climbing today was much lower due to a forecast for drizzle and a thaw to summit level. However, we persevered and were rewarded with a much nicer day than expected. It didn't rain very much at all and the wind was much lighter than forecast. The freezing level was at about 1200m but because it was very cold for the last few days and the snow is quite well transformed into snow-ice, the climbing was good. We went to Nevis Range to use the gondola, and climbed on the East Face in Coire an Lochain. We were first there so we abseiled Left Twin and climbed Typhoon and Left Twin. Both were excellent and the gondola was still running so we got a ride down as well.
With so much good ice and a good forecast for the weekend, it's going to be busy on Ben Nevis. So, instead of queueing for Orion Direct try Pinnacle Buttress Direct or Raeburn's Buttress Intermediary Gully. Have a look at Nasturtium and Morton's Neuroma. Stringfellow, Tower Face of The Comb, Fatal Error. There are lots of outstanding climbs to explore. Or go to Nevis Range and climb on Aonach Mor or Aonach Beag.
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.