The path from the top of Torlundy Forest up to the CIC Hut was re-built about 5 or 6 years ago and cost around £110k. Since then much more has been spent on maintaining the path, repairing damage from about 30,000 pairs of boots that go along it each year. The Pony Track from Achintee is also being upgraded now and the cost of this work, once completed, will be not far short of £1m. So it's worth noticing what's under your boots when you plod up in the morning and rush down before the light goes at the end of the day. Today I was on a very interesting workshop delivered by Nevis Landscape Partnership on how and why paths are built the way they are and what we can do to stop them wearing out.
It's all about water management. Water running down the path takes away the surface material and cuts away at the path at an amazing rate. We can clear debris out of water bars and check that cross drains are running well. If we see some more substantial wear on a path we should let Dougie know about it. Dougie is the Path Officer for Nevis Landscape Partnership and he over sees all the path work going on in the Nevis area. There's a lot more to the engineering of a path than you might think and Dougie knows it all.
Since the cold and mostly dry weekend we have had some periods of thaw and also fresh snow down to 700m and now 850m or so. Another thaw will go through over the next couple of days with a good freeze starting on Friday ready for weekend with strong winds and snow down to quite low levels again. These thaw freeze cycles with snow blown in to the gullies by strong SW winds are great for building up snow just where we want it. We have cornices building already and the thaws have certainly not stripped everything back again. I get the impression the ground has cooled down already - ice is starting to form where it often does such as on Hadrian's Wall Direct. There is by no means enough to climb on but it is a good sign for the coming winter. While we wait for the ice to come, rocky mixed climbing is very good fun. Routes such as Castle Ridge, Lost The Place and Slab Route can be great fun with snow on the rocks. No ice is required and the rocks are reasonably solid.
As a British Cycling tutor I deliver the Level 2 Mountain Bike Leader Award. At the end of last week I was working with students at West Highland College on a training course. The college has a big and active mountain bike club with lots of bikers who want to move into leading groups of riders. The two day training course covers everything to do this from leading styles and techniques to trail side repairs and navigation. It's great fun learning the core techniques of riding and how to encourage other riders to develop the skills. Navigation on a bike is not something most riders normally do and the skills are quite different from walking navigation down to the speed of travel. You can go quite far wrong in a short period of time
Today, with beautiful snowy peaks all around and with very cold dry conditions, I was assessing on a great ride around Invergarry. We manage to ride a route with forest trails, single tracks and double track fire roads, and open tracks on the moors above the forest. All the time I was thinking it would be a wonderful day up on the peaks! This weekend has been very cold on the tops and we had snow down to 150m above sea level. The coming week looks warmer and more unsettled but I think the crags have started to cool down already, especially with it being cold last week with rime ice growing on the rocks. We're ready for some proper falls of snow and some thaw freeze cycles to hold it in place.
It seems like winter has started properly now and the first climbs have been enjoyed by a few very keen climbers. Hopefully we will have five or six months of winter climbing to come.
As is often the case, climbs in the Northern Coires of the Cairngorms were the most popular choices for the first climbs of the season. At this time of year the ground is not yet frozen, turf can be soggy and the best climbing is on snowed up rock climbs. There are lots of these in the Northern Coires but there are climbs on the West Coast that are good early season climbs too. One of these is Crypt Route on Church Door Buttress, Bidean nam Bian which was also climbed on Saturday. Facing the wind from the west and being very high up this buttress cools down pretty quickly and can be white when other crags in Glen Coe are black. Crypt Route is a nice, solid rock climb in Summer and in winter the climbing is up steep chimneys with plenty of bridging and hooking around chock stones. There is also some underground action so take a torch and leave your rucksack at the bottom.
Today it was a bit warmer but not all the snow has melted away. In the gullies and behind the snow fences there is plenty left to refreeze tonight. Next week it looks like snow showers will build up a little snow all week and it might get even colder next weekend too. So we're off to a good start with the winter climbing.
Meanwhile I have been mostly mountain biking. Sometimes it is better to wait for the ground to freeze properly and mountain biking is a great way to keep the legs strong before the winter. I have just finished a British Cycling Level 2 Mountain Bike Leader Award training course with staff at Lochaber High School and working with High Life Highland. There are several local kids biking clubs and the leaders want to make sure they are running the clubs well. Gaining this qualification is a great way to do this.
With six months of climbing to come, it might be good to play the waiting game for a wee while yet.
Modern ice climbing was invented in Lochaber! Pioneers of front pointing and technical ice-picks developed their techniques and tools on the ice of Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. Cutting edge climbers including John Cunningham, Hamish MacInnes, Bill March and Kenny Spence came together to meet Yvon Chouinard in the Clachaig in February 1970, a meeting that resulted in the step cutting era ending overnight for all those there.
Not only are we using the same basic technique for ice climbing now but we can also climb all varieties of ice with the same tools. The snow-ice that Ben Nevis is famous for lent itself to step cutting very well but there is more than one type of ice to enjoy climbing. Ice forms in many different ways resulting in ice of different types and with different climbing qualities.
It can take many years to judge the formation of each different type of climb according to the prevailing weather. The best way is to make your best guess and see if you are right with the acceptance of turning back and the lesson learnt if you are wrong! Here’s a wee guide to get you started.
Cascade / Icefalls
These are frozen waterfalls and require nothing more than cold weather for several days for the ice to build. The ice is hard and brittle, super strong and secure. Ice screws are solid and axe placements need be only a few millimetres deep. In the same way as in Europe or Canada however, there is always debris falling from climbers above and it is as hard as rock when it hits you. It’s not a good idea to follow another team up an ice fall like these.
Steall Falls (III) – brilliant but only forms in exceptionally cold winters and gets very busy.
Great Gully, Buachaille Etive Mor (IV) – before snow fills the gully, ice falls form up the many steps. Great climbing but often threatened by avalanche.
Witches Falls, Sgurr Finnisg-aig (IV,5) – interesting climbing with a cable car descent to save the knees.
Blue Ribband (V,5) – at 600m, a long and committing climb that is a rare tick in Glen Coe.
These are very much like cascades but they rely on a spring or seep of water escaping the rocks to provide the water for the ice to form. They do not form quite as readily as the cascades in cold weather as the water supply is not as great and can be further slowed if the spring itself freezes over. Some thaw freeze cycles and snow to help the ice build are often required as well.
The Curtain (IV,5) – the ultimate popular classic with three stunning pitches, each steeper then the last.
The Pumpkin (V,4) – a classic of Creag Meagaidh. Three pitches of ice climbing get you to the source of the spring from where it’s mixed climbing to the top.
Gemini (VI,6) – brilliant and varied climbing up super steep and exposed smears fed by a spring on Carn Dearg Buttress.
Snow Patch Icefalls
Given just the right pattern and depth of thaw freeze cycles, certain snow patches can provide enough water to dribble down a crag beneath to form ice. We need enough of a thaw to make the water run down the cliff but not so much thaw that it melts the ice away as well. Snow melts faster than ice but it’s a fine margin. Waiting for these can be very frustrating. Just when they seem to be ready to climb the next thaw can strip them away completely.
Tower Scoop (III) – high and reliable climbing fed by water from snow in Tower Gully.
Smith’s Route (V,5) – a short, steep and classic climb high on Ben Nevis.
Mega Route X (V,6) – a long, steep and exciting pitch which rarely forms due to exact weather patterns required to make it form.
Royal Pardon (V,6) – much sought after and celebrated climb on Aonach Beag.
The most reliable kind of ice formation in Scotland is found in gullies. They catch a lot of snow blown in by the wind from many different directions so even very deep thaws do not always melt it all away. Instead, melt water percolates through the snow lower down in the gully and saturates it ready to freeze into perfect snow-ice, the celebrated plastic ice that Lochaber is famed for. At its best, snow-ice is soft enough to take a pick with ease, full of tiny air bubbles so it does not shatter and strong enough for ice screws. However appearances are not always quite what they seem. Gullies can look great but if the snow has not yet transformed into ice it can be a terrifying experience on vertical firm snow.
SC Gully (III) – classic, atmospheric climbing.
Crowberry Gully (IV) – long and brilliant with stunning views.
Left Twin (III,4) – a popular and reliable with good belays.
Comb Gully (IV,4) – a classic climb and often in condition.
Minus Two Gully (V,5) – a magnificent and classic climb.
Point Five Gully (V,5) – the most famous ice gully in the world!
Minus One Gully (VI,6) – the hardest and best of the Nevis gullies.
Thin Face Climbs
The highest faces form rime ice that builds on the steepest rocks and holds on to wet snow blown onto the faces that is transformed by thaw freeze cycles into a thin layer of ice, often only just thick enough to climb. These climbs are unique to Scotland and Ben Nevis in particular. Rime ice forms when the wind blows moist air in sub-zero conditions. Feathery ice crystals grow into the wind and can form a thick layer of delicate ice on anything. This ice also has wet snow blown onto it and slight dribbles of water run through it from the cornice above. Ben Nevis has the best combination of very high crags, humid cold winds blowing on to them and a succession of thaw freeze cycles through the winter that can result in soft, plastic ice forming in the most unlikely of places. The climbs are not restricted to drainage lines or water courses. It’s quite an experience climbing ice a few centimetres thick up blank rock slabs on the highest crag in the country.
Indicator Wall (IV,4) – the highest ice climb in the country.
Hadrian’s Wall Direct (V,5) – never too hard but serious, open face climbing.
Orion Direct (V,5) – the ultimate classic face climb.
Galactic Hitchhiker (VI,5) – a modern classic on ice glazed slabs.
Riders on the Storm (VI,5) – undercut slabs and corners with huge exposure.
Albatross (VI,5) – spooky climbing on thinly iced slabs.
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.