Climbing sea stacks is a very strange thing to do. For the amount of effort and logistical detail required, there is very little climbing. They are also a very long way away, covered in birds, awkward and even some of the climbing isn't great. However, climbing a sea stack is a real adventure; you never really know how it will go until you do it. That's why it's so satisfying when you do it. As well as the amazing places that you visit and the sharing of the adventure with some really cool people.
Gordon, Andy and I had never met before last Sunday but after the four hour drive to Stoer lighthouse it was clear that we were going to get on very well. The climbing standard was well matched and we were all up for a great trip, exploring new places and enjoying the experience. It all went just about as well as it could go too. The weather worked in very well, we got the tides just right and climbed every day of the six days apart from one. We had one wet day (just the mormning actually) and we went to Scara Brae on Orkney instead of climbing to check out the oldest known houses on the planet.
Even when things go so well, there are always some lessons to learn, and here are mine.
Lesson 1. Green rock is amazingly slippery. The morning before we climbed Old Man of Stoer was wet and the tide was still going out when we got there. So the rock platforms and the first traverse pitch were wet and green, making them about as slippery as the most slippery thing known to mankind. We set the tyrolean traverse rope but in walking around the flat rocks, my feet went up from under me and I landed very heavily, flat on my back. Thankfully there was no rock sticking up, it was a flat surface I landed on but it was quite a moment, and something I do not want to do again. It could very easily have been the end of the trip before we'd even started. Take care on the slippery green rocks.
Lesson 2. Sea stacks are really scary to look at. The first glimpse of Am Buachaille did not fill me with joy. I try to avoid watersports and waves so seeing the wave washed platforms underneath Am Buachaille did send shivvers down my (slightly aching) spine. Thankfully, sea stacks look less scary when you get closer to them. Once we were down on the rocks next to the stack and we'd let the tide drain out a bit more, we could see we'd be OK to swim across. It was still exciting and one or two of the waves were still coming over the rocks as Andy discovered! Am Buachaille is not a stack to take your time on. It's a serious job, getting the timing just right so you don't get stuck for twelve hours.
Lesson 3. Fulmars nest in May. Both times I've climbed the Old Man of Hoy previously, it's been covered in nesting fulmars. My tactic was to send Donald up first so he got the worst of the oily, fishy puke projected at him meaning there was less in the tank for when I went past. This vomit warfare only starts in May though so April is a good time of year to climb here. The fulmars are not nesting, there are far fewer of them on the stack and they just fly away when you get close and return after you've gone.
Lesson 4. Sandstone is very different to gneiss. We had a morning climbing at Sheigra on imaculate, solid, rough, clean gneiss. It's a joy to climb, well endowed with holds and protection, and very steep. We climbed Jugernaut which is outrageously steep but on very big holds and well protected. If you can hang on and pull, you'll be fine. Sandstone is not like that! The crux of the Old Man of Hoy requires remarkably little pulling, even round the overhangs. It's all about pushing, bridging, leaning and shifting your body weight around from slopy ledge to slopy ledge. The off-width crack is protected by two blue cams and two silver cams so it's pretty useless to help you climb. Wide bridging over a very impressive drop is the way to do it. You can't just pull yourself up.
Lesson 5. You will not get bored of climbing sea stacks. This was the third time I've gone on a sea stack climbing trip and it will not be my last. Each one was so exciting and rewarding, beautiful and intimidating that I will be back next year for more of the same. The drive around most of the NC 500 route adds enormously to the trip, stopping at Smoo Cave on the way past and with the added highlight of a visit to Orkney and Hoy. This really is a trip to remember for a lifetime. Come along next year and see for yourself!
In 18 days of walking up Grahams and Corbets around Fort William in the last three weeks, Jim met other people on the hills on only 2 of those days! There is lots of space up here and plenty of hills to enjoy walking up, down and around. Today was just the same. We went to Cluanie Inn and walked up the delightful Munro Ciste Dubh and saw nobody all day. Even with the Easter holidays and the town being quite busy, there is lots of space to get away from it all and find a bit of peace and quiet, some breathing space.
Ciste Dubh is a very nice peak which is found above a gentle coire directly north of Cluanie Inn. We walked up the coire on the vehicle track near the stream, rather than the old stalkers path up the slope to the east. It seems to be an easier walk on the track even when it starts to disappear. We got to the big, three way col and climbed the steep slope above to find the ridge that goes all the way to the summit, getting more and more narrow as it does so. There is a nice path though to take away from the long steep slopes down both sides and the wind was blowing on the other side, leaving us in a bit of shelter. The rain held off until we were on the way down too.
Back on Ben Nevis Tom, Tom and Freddie climbed Castle Ridge on nice dry rock in the main, and kept out of the stronger wind. They stayed off the snow today, but to reach the summit you need to walk over big patches of snow still on the Pony Track. We've had brilliant weather, even if it has been windy and cold. Today was a cloudy day making poor visibility on the top and someone made a mistake on the navigation to get down from Ben Nevis and ended up at the top of the cliffs above Coire Eoghainn. He needed Lochaber MRT to help him back onto the path and to get down. A little practice with a compass and some pacing to measure distances is all you need to keep on the right track when the visibility is poor.
This week Abacus Mountain Guides have looked after groups walking up Ben Nevis as the first of their three peaks challenge, taught climbing skills on Curved Ridge, practiced for the Alps on the Zig Zags and Stob Coire nan Lochan, all in fabulous sunshine and light winds. The mornings have been frosty with the snow frozen hard but once the sun is up its warmth gets to work to soften the snow pretty quickly. Since it is the start of the Easter holidays my children are off so whe Owen asked me to go ski touring with him I jumped at the chance.
We went to the Cairngorms where there is much better snow cover than over west. We walked a short way from the top car park at 600m before we could start skinning up Fiacail a'Choire Cas to point 1141. Hard snow made this tricky as soon as it got steep but once we were on top the snow was already soft in the sunshine. We went over to Stag Rocks and found Diagonal Gully. We'd had a tip off that had been skied and the snow was good all the way to Loch Avon. This is what we found, along with a good few ski tracks leading into and down the gully. The snow was certainly soft for us (someone who also skied it today said it was soft already at 10am) . Great fun skiing all the way down to one of the most impressive places in Scotland, Loch Avon Basin.
It was hot down by the loch with a very alpine feel. The skin back up was mostly on a track but we made a few adjustments due to more rocks revealing themselves with the melting snow. The slopes around Hells Lum crag had soaked up a lot of heat and, sitting on steep heather, made me think about the chance of full depth avalanches, despite the low hazard today. We kept to a route going through rocks to minimise any chance and got up fine but I did hear a slightly wierd whoompfing kind of noise at one point.
A very nice skin across to 1141 and down into the ski area got us back to the van. There are plenty of rocks to avoid, both going uphill and downhill. We certainly thought it was very much worth it toay and it will be good for several days more too. A trip up to Ben MacDui would be excellent and there are lots of other routes to enjot. Pinnacle Gully and Y Gully would not be much fun but I did not get a look into Castlegates Gully to see what it was like. Back home, there is still gully skiing on Ben Nevis but not much elsewhere. There is, however, great rock climbing in the warm sunshine, biking on (mostly) dry trails, brilliant walking in the glen and on the summits. Get out and enjoy the wonderful weather if you can.
Walking up Ben Nevis at this time of year can catch out some people. It looks and feels like spring in the glens, the flowers are coming out and there is blossom on the trees. The summit of Ben Nevis is still covered in snow though and it is a big deal reaching the summit, requiring winter boots, crampons, ice axes and navigation skills to deal with the white out on the snow where the trail is covered up. Our team of fantastic women from Birmingham hired a guide through us today and Andy helped them to reach the summit safely and all the way back down again.
The walk up the Pony Track is all on snow from corner five at 1050m above sea level. The freezing level was above the summit but the team was very happy to hav the crampons to make it easier on the snow. It was not hard frozen but the snow was firm packed and slippery. Our guided group walks start on Wednesday 1st May and take place every Wednesday and Sunday from then until the end of September. We're expecting snow on the ground for the first few and Sunday 5th May is already sold out. Get in touch if you'd like to join a group to get some help and support for your ascent and to learn a lot about the environment and history of the place.
Hard frozen snow, dry cold air and great company made for a very nice climb of Ledge Route today on Ben Nevis. Brooke and Sean are over from Seattle in the US for a few days in Scotland. Being strong mountaineers they wanted to experience Ben Nevis by the North Face. With worstening weather forecast we went for Ledge Route so that we would be off the summit in good time. After the cold weekend the snow was frozen solid and we made very good progress, reaching the summit before 1pm and back down by Coire Leis before the rain came in this afternoon.
We put crampons on at the foot of the snow in the run-out of Number Five Gully. The snow was hard frozen and the steps made in the thaw last week made it easy and secure to walk up the snow. We thought about taking the crampoins off at the start of the narrow rocky ridge. However, we kept them on and were glad to have them on most of the wy. There are just a few rocky sections, most of the route is on snow, including the slab low down on the route. We had a few light snow showers but the air and the rock were really dry so we stayed warm and comfortable all day.
On the summit there is about 1m depth of snow and the slope down towards the CMD Arete is also very well covered. The slope down into Coire Leis is quite serious so we took it very steadily. Hard frozen snow on a steep angle leads to rocks at the bottom of the slope. We followed good snow all the way to the Allt a'Mhuilinn underneath NE Buttress and took off the crampons there. The cold spell will stay with us for a few days more. It might officially be spring but it is very wintry on top - winter equipment and skills are absolutely required, no April fool!
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.