Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Sunday turned out to be very nice days. A few people enjoyed quiet crags and cold dry conditions for some climbing. Monday and Tuesday were much warmer and storm Frank brought another thaw with rain at all levels. It pushed over the West Coast over night and was doing much more damage to Eastern areas yesterday. By contrast, today dawned frosty, cold and dry with light winds, a lovely day to go climbing so Emma, Ben and I did just that.
The lens on my camera misted up so the pictures are not great. The view was crystal clear with ice forming at all levels and the old snow crisping up very well. A little fresh snow fell down to 600m last night but it stayed dry until about 3pm today when more snowfall came in. One team was climbing Number Two Gully Buttress which looked like a good idea. A narrow but continuous line of solid snow runs up the grooves of the buttress. There is some ice around Experts choice and Fin Gourmet as well. The buttresses were not rimed but did have a reasonable covering of snow. If you were careful you could find a line of white enough rock for mixed climbing. A couple of routes on Number Three Gully Buttress were climbed today.
Emma and Ben have not done much with crampons on so we did a bit of practice on the solid slopes in Coire na Ciste. Number Two Gully made a fine introductory climb for us. The snow is complete and the climbing steady away. There is some useful ice at the sides and some rock anchors still uncovered but the climbing is on steep snow all the way to a tiny cornice at the top. Perfect to learn how it all works.
We chose to abseil into Number Three Gully which is complete and quite simple with no cornice. Number Four Gully is also fine. Soft snow in these gullies is enough to make it easy to descend but not too much to make it hard work climbing up the way. So 2015 ends cold and slightly snowy. Let's hope 2016 carried on that way. Happy New Year and happy climbing!
Ice forming fast on Ben Nevis.
At Abacus Mountain Guides we sometimes use trainee instructors and guides to take people climbing or to run coaching courses. It's great to be able to offer these guys the chance to get invaluable experience and help them through their qualifications in the same way that other guides and providers helped me. To do this we need to spend some time climbing with trainees to see what their strengths and weaknesses are and make sure they will do a good job. Today Sally and I climbed most of Tower Ridge with John and Mike doing just this and we had a great time.
It was not much colder than on Monday when I climbed Number Four Gully but today the crags were riming up, ice was forming fast and there was frozen snow on the ledges on Tower Ridge. The difference was in the humidity I think; today was a lot less humid than Monday and the snow and ice are drier and colder as a result. There was a good dusting of powdery snow on the rocks of the first half of the ridge and higher up the old snow was frozen hard and there were icy bits of new snow on the ledges. Our clothing stayed dry and it was a very nice day to be out climbing.
We climbed as far as the Eastern Traverse which we extended to the foot of Tower Gully before descending Observatory Gully. This is a very handy escape from the ridge but it does involve some sketchy traversing of steep snow slopes above Tower Cleft, a terrifying hole in the mountain.The bottom of Observatory Ridge was knee deep in grauple! Ice has been forming fast; Smiths Route is half way formed including the icicle variation. Psychedelic Wall has a healthy smear on it and Point Five Gully is white from top to bottom. However, I imagine all of this ice is of poor quality and would be very scary to climb. It will take time and further thaw freeze cycles to firm up into good climbing ice. There was a team of two climbing Comb Gully and they got a good way up before abseiling down, probably due to the quality of the ice (or the spindrift coming down).
We have colder snowy weather forecast until the weekend when another warm spell is likely to be with us for a few days. Make the most of it while you can over Christmas and hopefully the thaw will not be as deep as the last few.
After Tuesday of last week we had another devastating thaw of the snow and ice cover that was building nicely. Record temperatures for December were recorded and lots of snow ended up in the Atlantic. Saturday was slightly cooler though with a light dusting of snow down to 1000m, yesterday was much the same and today the snow was sitting on the hills above 700m. The old wet snow was firming up at the top of Ben Nevis and the crags were collecting sticky fresh snow. It felt a lot more wintry today than it did at the end of last week.
Abacus Mountain Guides teams have been doing laps of Number Four Gully recently. On Saturday Louisa took her team of three up Number Four Gully to start off five days of training for their trip to Mont Blanc. They will cover all manner of movement skills and rope work for glacier travel, crevasse rescue and scrambling. Yesterday Steve took Erika and Michael up Number Four Gully for some crampon training ready for a trip to Aconcagua. So today I climbed Number Four Gully with Suhas and Sankalp as a first winter day out and in preparation for a trip to Mont Blanc. Scotland really is a great training ground for much bigger peaks. If you can manage the conditions here you'll be fine on any other mountain.
The rain was heavy and the wind battering as we walked up to the CIC Hut. We were already pretty wet by the time we got in to Coire na Ciste but we geared up for the climb and did some crampon and ice axe training and found that we were just above the freezing level. Our gear dried out and our rucksacks froze on the climb up the gully. The snow cover is a bit thin at the narrows of the gully and there is no cornice above the central part of the gully but the old snow firmed up and gave us a very atmospheric climb. Other people out today climbed Number Three Gully, Ledge Route and Observatory Gully as far as the narrows. It is complete all the way up Tower Gully and would give a fine climb to the top. Colder weather is forecast for a few days now but still with very strong winds. Perhaps the snow and ice cover will build a bit better and for longer than it has done so far this winter.
Jackknife before the thaw.
After a brilliant weekend of cold, dry and sunny weather, winter climbing conditions have been rapidly improving. I was a bit too pessimistic in my last post; must be a sign of getting older. There was enough rime and snow on the high buttresses for mixed climbs to be tackled and a few of the steeper routes were climbed. Sidewinder, Slab Climb, Sioux Wall and Cutlass on Ben Nevis, Crest Route, Central Groves, Scabbard Chimney and Intruder on Stob Coire nan Lochan were all climbed. There were one or two loose blocks and bits of soggy turf but generally the climbing was good. Today the temperature went up slowly but Sally and I managed a climb before all the rime and snow all fell off.
We only had a short day so we went for Jackknife on Douglas Boulder. I've climbed this a couple of times now and I really enjoy the climbing. It's just one pitch of tricky climbing which is nicely sustained and well protected. An easy pitch gets you to the start and another easier pitch gets you to where you can escape into Douglas Gap West Gully for a quick descent.
Ice has been forming well over the last three days. There are good fat smears on Gemini, Vanishing Gully and many others. However we have much warmer weather forecast for the rest of this week so some of this will melt away. How much we lose depends on how much rain falls and most of this will be on Thursday by the look of it. Hopefully it will not be as wet as the last few thaws.
To say the weather has been unsettled in the past week is an understatement. We are quite used to some freeze thaw cycles moving through the west coast of Scotland but the range of these cycles has been really quite notable. Last Saturday of course set a record for the rainfall in Cumbria. We did not get as much as there but it did rain heavily to the summits washing away much of the fresh snow. The snow came back again on Sunday but was washed away again on Monday and Tuesday with heavy rain to the tops. The snow is currently back with us, in fact it is falling to low levels (300m) and it is freezing on the tops. This time it might continue to do so for a few days and into early next week.
The weekend looks calmer and colder than it has been recently so we might get two reasonable days for climbing. However there will be lots of soft fresh snow falling tomorrow (with plenty of graupel in it) and the wet older snow underneath was saturated and will take a day or two to freeze. On the crags there is lots of water falling down the drainage lines and the seeps and cracks. If it stays cold this will freeze but I'm not convinced there will be much ice formed by the weekend, despite the attractive looking white lines on the crags. Turf and blocks will not be perfectly frozen either for mixed climbing. Altogether it will be distinctly "early season" conditions I think! Take several pairs of gloves.
The great ridges will be nice but quite tricky with fresh snow on rocks. They are probably the best routes to consider at the weekend. The big gullies will have lots of fresh soft snow in them making them avalanche prone and impractical anyway. My guess is that the harder mixed routes will not be completely frozen and there will not be much nice ice to climb.
Let's hope it stays cold for more than a day or two before the next big thaw so that climbing conditions can improve.
A fluid mountain bike expedition.
The last three days were spent in the saddle for Doug, me and six students on the Certificate in Outdoor Leadership Course at West Highland College. We've been riding with these guys for a few weeks now and they show a lot of talent and experience on bikes. Much of this is more tuned in to hucking dirt jumps and flowing down built bike trails. So three days of expeditioning with trailers, all the kit for two nights out and some of the wettest weather all year was quite different.
We started from Aberarder Lodge on the way to Laggan from Fort William. New tracks under the new line of pylons made easy work over to The Spey where we turned west and followed the river all the way to its source at Loch Spey. From here a nice section of wild single track took us through to Luib Chonnal, a fantastic bothy right in the back of beyond.
The ride down Glen Roy right from the top is majestic. Very impressive geography and unique geographical features make this a special place which was studied by Darwin and has ever since drawn scientists from around the world. A quick stop in Spean Bridge boosted energy levels for the huge climb past the Wee Minister to Lairig Leacach. The wind was picking up by this time with the arrival of the storm. The trailers lighten the front wheel of the bikes and make it easier to be blown around by the wind. We all got blown off sideways a couple of times but we soldiered on and made the sanctuary of the bothy before the storm really got started.
When the rain came on it was intense and continuous. Trips out of the bothy to fetch water were kept to a minimum so we could stay inside and stay dry. Ferocious winds tore at the sides of the bothy too and we were very glad not to be in tents. This morning, the puddles were deep and the wee streams that cross the track were way above the cranks. We made it back down to Leanachan Forest for a wet run along the puggy line to Nevis Range and back in to Fort William to hear of landslides blocking roads and to see the Lochy just scraping under the bridge. The students did well just to keep going for three days in such testing weather let along complete a great journey. Well done!
After the thaw.
Fresh snow fall blocked the A82 and A9 on Sunday with about 20cm snow and more being blown across the road. As the storm moved east the roads reopened after just an hour or so. Another cold night and cold day on Monday preceded a big rise in the temperature yesterday. We had about 50cm snow blown in to many gullies and bowls down to low levels and the highest gullies had a lot more than this. The snow came with strong westerly winds so a lot of it was transported off the tops and into the gullies and coires.
Yesterday it rained all day and the freezing level went well above the tops. Lots of snow melted and washed away into the sea. However, looking up from near the CIC Hut today, it's clear that lots of snow still remains and ice was forming in the cold conditions at the weekend. The major gullies are full and the coires are reasonably well covered with snow down to 900m. Number Two Gully avalanched in the thaw yesterday and the debris ran all the way to the base of Coire na Ciste. Smaller patches of snow remain at lower elevations but the main ridges are mostly clear of snow again.
There is quite a bit of ice left on the crags, not enough to climb probably but an encouraging sight even so. The Cascade has a good smear on it, Number Three Gully Buttress does as well and there is ice left on The Shroud. Hadrian's Wall Direct and Point Five Gully both hold wee dribbles too which is a good sign that the rocks have cooled down enough. We have colder conditions forecast over the next few days so these snow patches will freeze solid. They are full of water now so the snow will be dense and good to freeze into neve. This coming weekend is likely to be very windy but you will certainly be able to climb an easy gully or two. The Pony Track also has snow on it so please make sure you take ice axes and crampons with you if you go into the hills.
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.