On the longest day of the year we woke to see fresh snow on the summit of Ben Nevis and down to about 1200m. Anyone up on top early to see the sunrise might have had quite a chilly time. High pressure is building out to the west so we have NW winds blowing on to Scotland. This means cold and wet conditions which brought us snow over night. Thankfully the clouds cleared this morning and we had a dry but still cold day on top.
The five new Trainee Volunteer Rangers (David, Cameron, Andrew, Scott and Jake) and I went up to the north side of Ben Nevis. This is a great oportunity for me to tell them just how amazing a place it is! We talked about the climbing history such as the hardest ice climb in the worl one hundred years was Green Gully on Ben Nevis climbed by Harrold Raeburn. It remained the hardest ice climb in the world for nearly thirty years. Currently the hardest trad winter climb in the world is on Ben Nevis. It's called Anubis and was first climbed by Dave MacLeod. Today we had a bit of snow in Number Five Gully which had formed some nice arches and undercut shapes for us to scramble underneath.
The scramble itself was dry and snow free. The wild flowers in the first couple of ledges are spectacular. Globe flowers, moss campion, sibaldia, rose root, dwarf cudweed, thrift and many others make a meadow (well, kind of) that you walk through after leaving Number Five Gully. The botany on Ben Nevis includes some of the rarest alpine/arctic flowers, grasses and sedges found in the UK. From the top of Carn Dearg we navigated to the top of Number Four Gully where the starwort mouse ear is in flower. We didn't go down into Number Four Gully to check out the saxifrages there but I'm sure they are doing fine.
Lots of people were walking to the top in shorts and light shirts. Down in the glen it was nice and warm in the sunshine but as soon as you get high on Ben Nevis the temperature is much lower (only just above freezing in the shade today) and the windchill makes it feel really quite cold. Don't get caught out up there over the next few days thinking it will be warm because the sun is shining. It's cold on top!
Seven weeks ago I spent a day with the new Trainee Volunteer Rangers at Nevis Landscape Partnership when Glen Nevis was still brown. The silver birch leaves were only just opening up to the longer days but the grass was still brown with barely any new life after a cold winter. Today was somewhat different! Today was green on a grand sscale. Looking more closely at what lay under our feet we saw red, yellow, pink, purple and countless other colours. The sundews were particularly splendid with their red stems and eyelashes extending from theier green leaves like eyes. This is very good news because the delicate looking sundew is in fact a full on meat eater! Spiders and midges get stuck on the sticky enzymes on the eyelashes and get munched.
The new crop of volunteer rangers consist of a group of young guys very keen on a career in the outdoors, looking after the wild environment we have in our landscape. To do so sometimes involves operating in steep ground and in remote places. Today we did some scrambling up Scimitar Ridge, some abseiling and rock climbing, thinking about the rope skills required and simple ways to secuyre each other with a rope. We also did some core navigation training ready to be put into practice on our second day together later this week.
The barometric pressure is on the rise again which means settled weather is on the way. It might not be quite as dominant a high pressure as the last one but it will give some good days of weather at the end of the week and weekend. The flowers will be even more impressive then, with warm sunshine after the rain. Bog asphodel might be my favourite wild flower (below). What's yours?
Yesterday we had gusts of wind over 100mph on Cairngorm and very similar here on the west coast. It's unusual to get such strong wind speeds in June and thankfully the storm only lasted one day. This morning was a bit breezy but the wind dropped to a breeze by mid-morning. Charlotte and I enjoyed a walk up the Pony Track to Ben Nevis and managed to stay mostly dry on the way up.We had some nice views for much of it but the summit was stubbornly stuck inside the clouds.
The work carried out through Nevis Landscape Partnership on the Pony Track is fantastic. There is always more to do but the bulk of the major works are complete and what a difference it makes. It's a very skillful job to set the rocks in just the right place and manage the water that wants to drain down the path. What we have now looks really solid and will hopefully last for a couple of decades at least. It also makes the walking much nicer. The rocks are set at small irregular steps and it is easy to cover the ground at what ever pace and stride length works for you. It's an excellent piece of work but not cheap. This work cost in the order of £900,000.
Charlotte and I made it to the summit in good time and enjoyed looking at the ruins of the observatory. There is no snow on the summit now but there is still a small easy angle patch of snow just above the 1200m shelter. It will be a couple more weeks before this disappears I think. We had a shower of hail on the summit today and it was only a couple of degrees above freezing so perhaps this last patch of snow will hang around for longer. Well done Charlotte, it was great chatting with you. Well done Nevis Landscape Partnership for amazing work on the path too.
Nigel and I went back to Buachaille Etive Mor today with Connor, this time to climb the mega classic rock climb, Agag's Groove. We've wanted to climb this route for a few years now and never quite got the chance. Today the forecast was for the weather to worsten dramatically in the afternoon so the question, could we climb the route before the rain came in? We met at 8am in Glen Coe and quickly walked in to the foot of Curved Ridge. It was dry but clouds and a wind on the summits were telling us that the change was in the air.
We went up Curved Ridge as far as the first easing of the angle and went across to the foot of Agag's Groove. The groove starts as a tiny corner, only 20cm deep. Right from the very first step onto the rock you have interesting moves and they carry on all the way to the top. The corner quickly gets bigger and bigger until you can bridge across it. Half way up the first pitch is a disctictly harder section with smaller but very positive foot holds. The climbing is perfect for big boots and they seem appropriate in the big mountain setting.
Four pitches of amazing climbing culminates in the crux section on pitch three where you step left out of the groove to find a crack system going steeply up to a small ledge. This is in a sensational position with the onlookers on Curved Ridge below and the vast expanse of Rannoch Moor below them. There are a few rattley holds here and the nice spike at the top of the crack has fallen out in the last year or two. Take care! More hand holds might just come loose. The grade is the same though and there is good protection.
We got to the top and tidied up some of the old abseil rope anchors that have been accumulating on Crowberry Ridge. It's important that we try to keep our playground tidy and clearing away abseil tat is part of this. We abseiled down to the half way point with the idea of climbing back up the second half of January Jigsaw. However, the first drops of rain slowly started to come in and we decided to leave it while we were winning. We abseiled down to the bottom and scrambled down Curved Ridge in slowly worstening drizzle and rain, glad we got an early start and glad we didn't stay for a second climb. Well done Nigel and thanks to Connor. I wonder how many more classic rock gems we will be able to climb in the future.
So that's the end of the amazingly settled dry spell of weather. We have more mixed weather forecast and a big storm tomorrow as an atlantic low pressure system sweeps over the country. It will be very windy for June, what is normally quite a calm month. 85mph summit winds will make it feel more like a winter day than a summer day. Might be time to head indoors to Three Wise Monkeys Climbing for a bit of training!
It was slightly cooler today which was welcome. This might be a sign of the change in weather pattern that's about to arrive. It was still sunny and plenty warm enough for a lovely climb of Curved Ridge with Sally and Nigel though. With all the sunshine we've had over the last few weeks the wild flowers around the flush at the start of the route are fantastic. Lots of rose root and ladies mantle among many others adorn the wet rocks underneath D Gully. It's well worth doing the climb just to see the flowers.
Curved Ridge was of course completely dry and brilliant fun. It is such a good route mostly due to the huge amount of scrambling you do right the way up to the summit. From the car park to the summit it's just 2km in a straight line and we walked about 5km in total. This is such a short distance compared with how much bending and styretching, pulling and reaching that you do on the way! Scrambling is a full body toning workout with views.
We went up to Crowberry Tower, possibly the best picnic spot in Scotland, and surveyed Rannoch Moor from a long way above it. The resident raven flew past after our stop but didn't find any scraps of food left by us. The huge hanging block that sits perched above Crowberry Gap is still there and still looks like it will fall out at any moment. We didn't hang around underneath it or even look at it too intensely in case it fell out.
The views from the summit are amazing and it was nice enough to sit and enjoy them for a moment. By tomorrow afternoon it will be very different. Wet weather is forecast to arrive mid-afternoon and it will be unusually windy for June. The high pressure has finally moved away and an atlantic low pressure system with its associated fronts are going to bring rain and strong winds for a couple of days.
Lorn and Lochaber Ramblers offer a very active callendar of walks at a range of levels of challenge, all of which are led by a volunteer in the group. It's a fantastic way to get into walking and climbing Munros with like minded people. The walk leaders are all volunteers and they all enjoy walks led by others as well. Today we did some training for some of these leaders based in Glen Coe. We drew from many of the things we discuss on a Summer Mountain Leader Training Course as well as the fantastic experience of the leaders themselves. It's a real skill and one that is always improving so getting some training and practice with fellow leaders is a very useful thing to do.
We spent the first part of the day indoors having really good discussions about good practice, duty of care, responsibilities to group members and The Ramblers as well as to other hill walkers. Some of the things are quite practical and easy to implement such as leaving a route card with someone who will instigate a late back procedure. Other topics are more difficult to put in place straight away such as developing different leadership styles to suit the situation and finding the position of most usefulness in the group walking along the trail. Everyone agreed that the focus should be on the security and enjoyment of the group members and the leader's satisfaction will come vicariously.
We went up to Hidden Valley (AKA Lost Valley) in Glen Coe which is a super popular walk through a rocky gorge with some tricky steps in the path. It was just enough to put the learning in to context and to practice a few leadership tools. We also considered what to do in an emergency if a group member became incapacitated and what gear to carry with you. It was warm and dry again and the stream is very low so crossing it was very easy. It's great to see so many people out enjoying the wonderful mountains we have here in the Outdoor Capital of the UK!
Following the seasons through the year is a joy. I get really excitied when the first snow comes in the autumn and the colours turn firey red. The storms and hard graft of winter slowly recede to spring when the pressure eases and it all becomes fun again. Then the mountains turn green and we know that summer is here. When Mike and I climbed on the Mome Wrath Face a few weeks ago it was still spring. Today it felt like summer.
We've climbed on the Weeping Wall and Terrace Face a few times before. There is a lot of great climbing here and another trip seemed like a good idea to make the most of the dry rock. We climbed Curving Crack first which has a surprisingly steep crux section on the second pitch. All the climbs here are face climbs, quite steep with reasonable holds and protection you have to work hard to find. I was glad I took some big cams today and my superlight offsets seemed to fit really nicely.
Mike and Ben were out climbing with some joint services people and another couple came up as well. Ben and team are on Eve's Arete in the video clip, a wonderfully exposed V. Diff climb that Mike and I climbed with Ron a few years ago. It was relatively busy but with lots of climbs to choose from there was certainly no queueing. Mike and I went for Rowan Tree Wall for a second lap of the crag and it was fantastic for a route with no stars.
All we wanted to do was jump in the stream after the climbing to cool off but the NTS path team was out working on the path to Coire nan Lochan even in the burning sun. These guys do such a good job they deserve all the support we can give them. They are on hand all year round to patch up damage to the paths in Glen Coe and on Ben Lawyers and to do major projects as well. Go and join National Trust for Scotland if you appreciate the paths in Glen Coe!
If you think you need to travel to far continents and foreign countries to find adventure you need to think again. To find wild, rugged landscape where very few people explore you don’t need to leave the UK. Just head north for about as far as you can go.
Think about the numbers; there are 10 million people living inside the M25, an area about the same size as the Isle of Skye on the West Coast of Scotland. In all of Scotland there are only 5.5 million people and 3.5 million of these people live in the central belt. Around the coast of the far north of Scotland you are in for a rare treat. Endless sea cliffs with amazing rock in a wild landscape and with nobody else around for miles in any direction offering as much adventure as you’ll ever need. And then there’s the sea stacks to make it even more fun!
Ella, Dave and I went on a road trip along with Donald, Cathy and Alison to find the best sea stacks and sea cliff climbing on offer. For a warm up and shake down day to get attuned to the noise, the feel and the smell of sea cliffs we went to Sarclet close to Wick. On the East Coast just south of John O’Groats the weather is pretty reliable and the rock is solid. Sarclet Pimpernel and Groove Armada require an abseil down to a small ledge and hanging belay just above the waves then amazing moves on solid rock back up. Only one dropped belay plate and one delicate dangle in the sea made it a successful day. We were ready for the first old man of the trip, the biggest old man in the country.
If you have to take a boat it’s going to be a good climb. We had to take two boats and a taxi to get to Rackwick bothy on Hoy, a small but welcome building made of the sandstone we hoped to climb, a building that seems to grow out of and be part of the boulder beach. The swell on the sea and the heavy rain were not quite what we wanted though. The scale of the cliffs around the bay and crashing waves made it a very atmospheric place. Even the boulders on the beach are huge, like massive dinosaur eggs. It seemed that surfing might have been a better choice than rock climbing.
The next day was bright and breezy though and the rock dried out quickly. The crux corner of the Old Man of Hoy provides typically three-dimensional climbing with more pushing than pulling. Training at the climbing wall will not prepare you for this pitch, especially the 50m drop straight down to the boulders below.
Then it’s four more straight-forward pitches to the top with minor route variations to avoid the nesting fulmars. It’s quite remarkable how much these birds hold in their stomachs ready to throw up at you in defence of their eggs. I didn’t expect it to be bright orange but I did expect it to be warm, oily and very smelly. Thankfully for us, Donald and Cathy got the worst of it so Ella, Dave and I got away with minor damage.
It was nice enough for a few minutes’ contemplation on the top, watching the seals swim through clear water 135m below us. We waved at the folk on the ferry back to the mainland and started the abseils back down. A puffin came and stood on the top ledge a metre away from Cathy to check out what was going on. Its quizzical look appeared to say “you’re a strange looking bird. Why don’t you just fly down?”
Back at the bothy, couscous and satisfaction along with a little relief made for a fine meal and a sound night of sleep.
Traveling around the north coast of Scotland after the ferries back to Scrabster is a joy. The landscape changes quickly from agricultural to rugged, from green and pleasant to brown, grey and harsh. It’s no less beautiful and is so much more dramatic. We settled down at another fine camping spot under the sunset over Cape Wrath.
Another boat ride is required to get to the furthest North West point of the mainland, Cape Wrath. This one is tiny and the knackered minibus that bumps along to the lighthouse is apparently roadworthy (it’s a public road after all) but doesn’t give that impression. The ferry was on flat calm water but we were greeted on the open coast by a 3m swell and crashing waves. It’s tricky to find the old lady, A’Chailleach, but it was immediately obvious that the ocean did not want us to swim over to the sea stack today. Instead we explored the cliffs with the waves reaching up to our toes. We climbed Photographers, a modest route that became exhilarating when you watched the swell surge underneath. Four new routes to the north of the sea stack for the two teams followed by a beer at the lighthouse made it one of the best days of climbing we’ve ever done.
Sheigra is typically west coast. Open camping on the machair right next to the impeccable and steep gneiss cliffs has a friendly atmosphere. The walk in to the climbing is all of 100m so we did several laps. Again, the swell was way too big to contemplate any swimming to sea stacks today but it did add plenty of atmosphere to the climbing. Juggernaut was the pick of the climbs. At E1 5a it has enormous holds but it overhangs for nearly its entire 35m so the crux is not the technical moves at the start; the crux is being able to hang on until the top!
Our last day of climbing dawned bright and the sea had finally calmed down. It’s a beautiful walk from the Point of Stoer lighthouse to the Old Man of Stoer. The path goes over a very modest hill which has the most spectacular view in all of Scotland, back onto the sandstone monoliths of Assynt. We timed the tide perfectly and I made the short swim across to the stack. It was already warm enough for a dip in the ocean to be welcome. We tied a tyrolean rope for the team to traverse the channel and to get back after our climb.
If you get to the Old Man of Stoer at the right time you can walk around the back and start the climbing a pitch up the normal route. This avoids the green, damp hand traverse with the potential of a swinging fall into the water and is recommended. The rest of the climb is on solid and clean sandstone. Only two fulmars were on the route and they were not too upset by us climbing past them. We arrived on the top in baking sunshine with puzzled onlookers on the cliff at one side and Canada on the other.
In seven days we combined most of the North Coast 500 touring route with The Old Men of Hoy and Stoer, spectacular sea cliff climbing at Sarclet, Cape Wrath and Sheigra, shared amazing experiences with like-minded people, immersed ourselves in nature and felt its awesome power and command. What more can you ask for in a climbing adventure?
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.