Heavy rain last night at sea level was falling at lower and lower levels on the mountains as the night progressed. By this morning it was snowing heavily down to 500m or so and about 20cm had built up in most places. The temperature fluctuated a little with the freezing level seeming to be between 700m and 900m. Mercifully for us, storm Dylan passed right over us so we got the light winds in the centre of the storm. Despite this we got some pretty fierce gusts with snow blowing around in every direction and all the gear got very wet. Ben and Emma described the conditions as brutal and they were not far wrong!
We climbed SW Ridge of Douglas Boulder on Ben Nevis. We had to walk up through the rain turning to snow and into the cloud. At least the Allt a'Mhuilinn was covered in snow just below the CIC Hut and wading in to the route was not so hard. Where it was accumulating the snow was showing cracks and easy sheers so there was certainly some avalanche hazard buyilding up. The climbing was good although it was hard to tell with all the soft snow around and with all the protection we needed to wear.
As a gauge of how harsh a day is for the weather just count the number of pairs of gloves you go through. We used every set we had and still had wet, cold fingers! Well done to Ben and Emma for your determination to continue and to have fun! You both did amazingly well in the conditions today. It might have been type two fun but it was certainly fun!
Happy New Year!
With very strong winds on the forecast, Philip and I went to Buachaille Etive Mor in Glen Coe to stay sheltered from the worst of the wind. We climbed North Buttress which was a lot of fun. As it turned out, the wind did not pick up until we were half way down the descent so we enjoyed the climb with snow falling gently and the freezing level just beneath our boots all the way up. The cover of snow is not deep so walking up to the start of the climbing is really awkward; soft snow on slabs and scree and heather. It is always well worth the effort though.
The buttresses were complete white with snow and rime. Slime Wall was the whitest I have ever seen it I think. I guess the swirling wind yesterday, cloud and freezing temperature formed rime on every surface up there. The rime was easy to brush off again and the climbing on North Buttress was quite steady away with hooks and ledges easy to find. The turf was well frozen and we even found a touch of ice in one section of the chimney. Despite this, ice is in short supply at trhe moment and we are mainly enjoying ridges and buttresses.
Philip and I enjoyed two classic winter climbs which gave him a really good idea of what Scottish winter climbing is all about including mixed climbing, strong wind, long walks in and descents, and sloppy mushy snow sometimes! He even had to help push my van out of the ice and mud at Lagangarbh (and a huge thanks to the van of young women who stopped to help as well). Stormy weather with fluctuating temperature are forecast for the next few days so we might well get ice forming a bit soon. Fingers crossed!
A wild and windy scene lay ahead of us up the Allt a'Mhuilinn today. Philip is in Scotland to try some Scottish winter climbing with all the weather and challenging conditions it brings after learning his ice climbing in the USA. So we went up into the swirling wind and made our way to the foot of Tower Ridge. A lot of snow as being blown around by the strong easterly wind. There is something about easterly winds on Ben Nevis that create strong gusts and big down drafts. It's quite unpleasant and was not very encouraging for our attempt to climb the ridge. However the forecast said it would calm down so we stuck with the plan.
There is a little old snow in the East Gully of Douglas Gap to make it slightly easier to reach the gap and the wind was blowing up the gully so there was little fresh snow there. Where the fresh snow was collecting we found shooting cracks as the weak layer (of buried surface hoar) collapsed and the windslab broke away. We were glad to be on a ridge and not under anywhere that the snow was collecting. Once on the ridge it was a bit scratchy with a thin cover of soft snow on the rocks. Phil now knows why my crampons are so blunt!
There is a little old snow on the climb, mostly underneath the the fallen block after the Eastern Traverse. There is less snow and more rime on the top part of the ridge and the rime fell off very easily leaving dry rock underneath. The mixed climbing must be very good at the moment on climbs that require no snow-ice with no ice in the cracks. Some ice has been forming again quite quickly in drainage lines but it has a way to go yet before it will be fun to climb.
The wind did drop as forecast and the snow stopped falling. In fact we had a lovely walk down with fantastic views down to Mull and a brilliant sunset as we walked past the lochain. Over the next few days we might well get a good bit more snow collecting in the gullies and slopes in the coires. Let's keep our fingers crossed that we get a reasonable base of snow building up now before the next substantial thaw.
After a thaw of a few days, starting on Monday and finishing on Sunday, we do not have much snow left. There are some patches and thin strips, the major gullies have a little old snow in them and the crag aprons and scarp slopes have some. Thankfully Santa was good to us all and the temperature dropped on Christmas Day so we got a light dusting of snow. We woke on Christmas Day to fresh snow on the hills above a blanket of cloud in the glens and it was a beautiful day for the few that walked in the mountains.
It was cold again today and it is forecast to stay this way for the rest of this week. We have northerly winds which drop the tempoerature but also do not often bring us very much snow. We will get further showers of snow but not much accumulating. Ben Nevis today was looking brilliant with the snow on it and the ground was freezing well again.
We're back to enjoying classic ridges and steep rocky mixed routes. Give it a few days for the turf to re-freeze again properly but this will not take long I think. There is some snow in the big gullies so if you want to climb the steep scree with a little loose snow on you will find hard snow and small cornices. Great weather though, make sure you work off some of the Christmas feast and make the most of a cold spell of weather this week.
Yesterday started out very well. We had a cool night, not quite a frost, and a bright dawn to greet Beccy, Sally and me as we walked up the very icy track through the forest and the path along the Allt a'Mhuilinn to Ben Nevis. It was one of those mornings when you start to question why you didn't pack more ice screws and go ice climbing. We planned on climbing Tower Ridge so it would have been difficult to climb any of the copious ice falls with one ice axe each, some hexes and nuts, and 40m of rope. So e stuck with the original plan and it was a very thing that we did.
There was lots of ice on Compression Cracks, Boomers Requiem, The Shroud, Gemini, The Shield Direct, The Curtain, the Trident Buttress ice climbs such as Joyful Chimneys, Garadh Gully, Point Five Gully and many others. The snow had got wet from the brief thaw on Sunday and it had firmed up well enough. There is patchy but good snow cover in the coires and well down below, snow on ledges on the buttresses and ridges and big gullies are complete. At least, this is how it was in the morning.
Beccy, Sally and I climbed Tower Ridge which had soft snow and plenty of ice on the rocks. This is a combination that makes it quite a slow going but we made good progress even so. Another team was making it more tricky by finding various dead ends and awkward grooves to follow rather than the usual line. This is very easily done when there is no track in place in the snow. The route on Tower Ridge is not obvious and unless you know it intimately it will take a lot of time to work it out. We left the ridge at the Eastern Traverse by continuing the traverse underneath Tower Gully and Gardyloo Buttress before descending Observatory Gully. By this time the ice was streaming with water and the snow was gopping (to use a technical phrase).
Later in the evening we got a call to Lochaber MRT from a pair of climbers who had gone off-route and were stuck so I had the opportunity to climb Tower Ridge for a second ime in one day. We were grateful for the track in the snow and we found the guys easily and got back on route before climbing up to the Eastern Traverse and descending exactly as I had done earlier in the day. It was amazing how much ice had m,elted off the rocks on the ridge. Today we have had a thaw and it will not be very cold until after Christmas. However we do have cold ground, ice in place and a good enough covering of snow for the time of year. When it re-freezes we will get an extra Christmas present in the form of some lovely snow ice to climb!
Yesterday we had another lovely cold and sunny day. We went up The Zig Zags on Gearr Aonach in Glen Coe which got us to the finest picnic spot in the glen! We had a wee thaw today with heavy rain to the summits but not for very long. The rain and clouds cleared quickly this morning and we had a dry day with the team from St. Paul's School at Poldubh in Glen Nevis. Looking up to Stob Ban there is plenty of snow left and most of the ice that formed on the crags. It cooled down again this evening and we will have a cold night but tomorrow the temperature will rise steadily during the day. Tuesday looks very warm indeed. This kind of thaw and refreeze is ideal for building a solid base of snow and forming solid snow-ice in the gullies for climbing. The stormy weather over the next few days will be great for us in the long run.
So instead of wading through soft wet snow today we went scrambling, rock climbign and abseiling on Scimitar Ridge and at The Alp in the Poldubh Crags. The rock was dry for climbing The Gutter (wet inside the crack though!) which was a brilliant climbing for the pupils and great practice with their big winter boots. As a finale we went to the Lower Falls and set up a tyrolean traverse. Lots of snow melt made the river very full and it was quite an experience dangling on a rope over the main part of the falls. Well done to the pupils and staff of St. Paul's School; that was a full and very good fun three days.
The snow was down to just about sea level again today for the first of three days with pupils and staff of St. Paul's School in London. They are staying at the very excellent Corran Bunkhouse and today we went to Buachaille Etive Beg. There is a great path up to the col between the two Munro's which makes it quite an easy walk to the peaks and a popular choice. The path was somewhere under the snow today and we only found it occasionally but the snow was quite nice for making steps anyway. Stunning views in all directions, sunshine and a good variety of snow types with wee patches of ice made for a very good learning day for the team.
We looked at what to wear, what to take with us, how to walk (skillful walking), route choice, the effect of the wind on the snow and many more things. There are many areas of deep windslab which are hard work to walk through. The wind changed direction last night as well so there are deposits on many aspects. Most of the windslab is fairly well held in place but it's nice to have the SAIS Avalanche Forecast back up and running for the winter.
We will have another very nice day again tomorrow. There is not much ice to climb apart from in some drainage lines and even then the fresh soft snow is covering up a bit of it. Gullies are full of soft snow and ridges have a lot of soft snow on them as well. Steep mixed routes are very good though - Stob Coire nan Lochan was well rimed all the way to the floor and the crags are generally quite white and well frozen. However we will get a thaw on Sunday which will last a few days so the soft snow will consolidate and hopefully re-freeze into solid snow-ice.
The students on the Certificate in Outdoor Leadership Couirse at West Highland College were down to do a two day MTB expedition today and tomorrow. However, snow cover down to sea level, a temperature well below zero at sea level and ice forming everywhere it was decided that we should reconsider. So, instead, we made use of the exceptionally cold weather right now and started their winter walking training. This being the first day out walking in winter there was an element of faff before we got going. However, the team were on it and we got out to walk up Creag Dubh next to Roy Bridge pretty soon.
The snow covering everywhere down to sea level and we had a bit more last night. It's not that deep, th egrass and heather are sticking out the top of it still and the ground is not frozen underneath until you get up to about 600m. So we had a nice wade through soft snow on soft turf most of the way up to the top where we found the most expansive views of the glens and peaks in their winter coat. We put on the crampons and went for a stomp around, spotted some wind blown snow and discussed signs to se on the journey that there might be wind slab building, and generally looked after ourselves in the very cold weather.
The cold weather has of course been growing ice in all the drainage lines such as Beinn Udlaidh, Eilde Gorge, The Organ Pipes and gullies such as Waterfall Gully and Garadh Gully on Ben Nevis. The climbs are not fat by any standard but there is ice climbing to be enjoyed and we have a few more days of cold weather to enjoy yet to come.
For the last three days, Al Halewood and I have been working with students and staff at West Highland College getting them ready for the winter. We had a day inside on Wednesday going over all sorts of theory about what to expect, what the hazards are, avalanche awareness, human factors and decision making. We went through the very excellent Be Avalanche Aware process which I recommend everyone to study up on and to follow. Along with the theort we did some practical exercises for the students to work through and gave them some real world methods of following the advice such as making sure everyone knows the avalanche hazard and what the route is, giving everyone the chance to voice any concerns and to vocalise everything that you see, giving the right to veto to anyone in the group and making a Ullyses contract about places not to go to.
Yesterday during Storm Caroline we went into the Lost Valley to make sure we stayed out of the worst of the wind. We did get the ice axes out on a steep grass slope too! Then we went to the ice wall in the Ice Factor for some climbing coaching! Today was much more wintry after th etemperature dropped dramatically yesterday and the snow started to build up. We went into Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis and found some good old frozen now and plenty of pillows of fresh snow and windslab.
Since the rocks were wet yesterday when the temperature dropped super quickly they were icy today. With a covering of soft useless snow it was fairly tortuous moving around in the coire. The great ridges will be the same right now, slippery icy rocks with soft snow on them, so expect them to take a long time and to be pretty heavy going. There is some rime on the steeper rocks and ice has been growing very quickly. There is lots of water in the crags after the rain earlier this week and it is freezing fast in the -10C temperture on the summit. A team climbed Number Three Gully Buttress today which had a really nice pitch of ice at he start. Green Gully was complete as well but, to be clear, it is definitely not grade IV at the moment, nor guaranteed to be good ice in it! It is a good indicator of things to come though.
So the students and staff from the college had a great preparation for the winter and the crags have also had a very good preparation for the winter to come. The rocks are cold, ice is quick to form and snow is starting to build up. The MWIS forecast says that the ground is frozen from sea level upwards but don't read this as saying the turf is frozen everywhere. It is not frozen everywhere but it will be very soon in this cold weather!
Moving up to the next grade can feel like a daunting prospect, or sometimes an impossible leap. Much of the time the barrier is in our heads but there are also some practical steps you can take to reach the next level in your winter climbing.
To get used to placing protection on harder climbs and in more difficult positions, when you are climbing at your current grade place protection in tricky places. You know you can climb at this grade and you can place protection in comfortable places. As well as this, stop on the steeper, trickier sections and place protection. Don’t power through the crux; instead stop half way through it and place an ice screw or a nut. This will give you practice in placing protection in more difficult places which is what it will feel like on the harder climb. Make sure you are relaxed and slick at placing the protection. If it does not work you can just carry on climbing like you would have done anyway.
In fact, even if you don’t place protection, stopping half way through the tricky section of your current grade is a good idea. Instead of powering through, rushing through the crux to easier ground above, slow down, stop and admire the view. You need confidence in what you are doing and in the position you are in. If you are rushing though the crux you are not ready to move up a grade. If you are relaxed and confident enough to stop and soak up the atmosphere, to admire the view, you are ready to try a harder climb.
You need to trust your protection and belay anchors. You might even need to do a hanging belay on the next grade of climb. So, practice and get confident in your anchors by leaning out on your anchors when you are belaying your buddy. This is a good idea anyway. You do not want any slack rope between you and your anchors if you are belaying off your harness so that there is no chance of a shock load on your anchors if your buddy falls off. So, kick out a nice ledge, stand tall and lean back on your anchors with confidence.
Do your research. Winter climbs come in all shapes and sizes, styles and characters. Choose one that matches your strengths, whether it is ice, mixed or snowed up rock. Find out what it takes to be in optimum condition, where the pitches go, where to belay and where the crux is. Choose a popular climb which is well known, not an esoteric adventure that has only seen one ascent. Make sure it is well known so you can get the information you need and so you know the grade is accurate. You will also be able find out when it has been climbed recently which is quite a reassurance. Making the first ascent of an ice climb each winter is certainly more nerve-wracking than climbing it after many recent ascents.
Having said this, it can be tricky working out what kind of route each one is and therefore what the optimum conditions are. The information is much more available these days though and don’t be afraid to ask around.
Snowed up rock climbs often come in to condition first each winter. These are solid rock climbs that just need a quick freeze along with rime and snow to make the rocks white. Savage Slit and Fallout Corner in the Northern Coires of Cairngorm, Slab Route on Ben Nevis, Scabbard Chimney and Crest Route on Stob Coire nan Lochan are all pretty good examples.
Mixed routes take a little longer to freeze up properly and should not be attempted until the turf is frozen solid. These routes are climbed on rimed up rock, frozen turf and bits of ice all mixed up together. Climbing mushy turf is very unpleasant and damages the turf for future ascents. Taliballan on Stob Coire an Laoigh in the Grey Coires, Western Chimney Route on Bidean nam Bian and Morwind on Aonach Mor are all good examples of turfy mixed climbs.
Some mixed climbs take a bit more frozen snow-ice to be at their best. Snow-ice is formed by snow on the route being warmed by a thaw so that it goes wet but does not melt away, then refreezing into solid, aerated ice that is brilliant to climb on. Thompson’s Route on Ben Nevis is just like this. It’s a wonderful icy mixed route with bits of snow-ice and bits of rock in a chimney that is a dream to climb when the snow-ice has built up but very tricky beforehand.
When the snow-ice has had more time to form and just the right combination of snowfall and thaw freeze cycles (often not until February or March) the West Coast classic ice climbs can be at their best. Orion Direct, Hadrian’s Wall Direct, Point Five Gully and Zero Gully are all climbs to aspire to once you are confident on grade V ice and you can climb 300m or 400m in a few short hours!
When we get a sharp cold snap there are ice climbs that form in natural drainage lines. Whole venues such as Beinn Udlaidh is a perfect example of a venue full of ice climbs that require a very good freeze of a week or two but very little snow or thaw freeze cycles. The climbs here are of strong but hard water ice that is secure to climb on (solid ice screws as well as ice axe placements) but steep and hard work to place your picks. Make sure you sharpen your picks and crampons before you go!
Some winter climbs are good in any conditions and it is well worth knowing about these. If you climb the same route in very different conditions you will learn about how the conditions change the climbing and the feel of the route. It might also give you some good climbing in marginal conditions or bad weather. North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor is a great example. The grade is much the same if it is just rimed up, buried on soft snow or if it has a line of ice in the chimney and it is always great fun. South West Ridge of Douglas Boulder on Ben Nevis has become a very popular climb recently for the same reasons.
Climb with climbers who are better than you. You will find it easier to move up a grade if you have seconded a few climbs at that grade and you know what it feels like. In fact, if you can get a buddy to lead you up a climb that you want to lead yourself you will have much more chance of success. Much of the difficulty in moving up a grade is psychological so take away the concerns over route finding, where to belay, what kind of protection to take with you as well as the climbing itself by climbing it with a stronger climbing buddy. Even though leading a route you have seconded makes it much easier to lead, you will still have the confidence of having lead at that grade which will carry you forward to your first onsight lead of that grade.
Serve an apprenticeship and move through the grades steadily. If you climb one grade IV route you are not automatically ready to climb a grade V. Even if you find the grade IV straight forward you should climb several more at that grade before moving up the grade. Experience is earned through spending time on lots of climbs in different locations, on different days and in different conditions. You learn how to deal with many, many different situations and these help you cope with new situations that you will undoubtedly face.
“There is more to ice climbing than climbing ice”. In fact, the techniques of winter climbing are only a small part of climbing winter routes. Be prepared to build up a huge bank of experience by climbing lots and lots of routes. You will learn all sorts of tricks from other climbers, about dealing with the harsh weather, about how the weather affects the climbing conditions, about avalanche safety and navigation, and about how to cope with all the little (and some major) things that don’t go completely right every time!
Sort your system so that you stay warm and dry. We all have different preferences of gloves and clothes but a system that works well for you is essential. Any fool can be cold, hungry and dehydrated but all these will reduce your performance. Play around with different gloves and carry spares for when you get wet. Use a belay jacket, one between the two of you if you are swinging leads. A jacket that fits over your helmet, that does not pull out from under your harness and that does not hang over your harness covering up your gear makes a huge difference to your climbing.
Find food that is easy to eat on a belay ledge and something to drink in something you can drink from easily. If you can arrive at the foot of the crux pitch feeling warm, dry and well fed you will be in a much better position to climb it. The concept of marginal gains really makes sense to me in winter climbing. Making sure your zips are done up really can help you climb the next grade!
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.