D Gully Buttress.
The warm and soggy theme continues. It's just as well we have some brilliant scrambling routes in the Outdoor Capital of the UK to enjoy which are great routes at any time of year. Alasdair and Euan were back for a second day of climbing so we went to Glen Coe for change of scene. We climbing up D Gully Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor which leads on to Curved Ridge below its crux tower. After climbing this we went to the top of Crowberry Tower and on to the summit. This link up gives about as much rock as you find on Tower Ridge (lots!) and feels harder on the crux sections even though it's graded Difficult as well.
D Gully is straight above you at the top of the screes on the way to Curved Ridge. D Gully Buttress is to the left of the gully and is quite well defined. In fact, lots of people have climbed it thinking they were on Curved Ridge since it is the most obvious ridge in the area. Curved Ridge is quite hard to find on the first visit; D Gully Buttress is quite easy to find. The ridge leads up to the first of two crux sections, a short but steep wall with lots of cracks. Another pitch above this lands you at the foot of a steep, blank wall which is best avoided on the left unless it is dry and warm. A nice bit of blocky ridge leads to the second crux section, this time delicate and slabby.
From the top of the buttress a wee path goes across to Curved Ridge where we got to enjoy its crux tower, rubbed and scraped by thousands of boots and crampons. There's a small patch of snow above Curved Ridge but you barely touch it on the way to Crowberry Gap. We did the mini-excursion to Crowberry Tower, taking care not to spend any time under the very loos and overhanging block on the tower. This block threatens Crowberry Gully and will fall off at some point.
We didn't need crampons or ice axes today and in fact we didn't take them. We could see clearly from the road that we didn't need them. However it will get cold on 1st January and 2nd January looks like it will be a stunner of a day. Get out and enjoy some crisp sunshione.
Snakes and ladders.
Winter climbing in Scotland is a bit like the board game "Snakes and Ladders". We throw the dice and see if we move a few squares forward, get a wee helping hand from a ladder or slide backwards down a snake. Right now it seems like we slid down a snake back just about to where we started. High pressure centred to the south of the UK is drawing warm moise air from the Canaries all the way up to Scotland where it is melting the little bit of snow and ice that had accumulated so far. We have another few days of it left too before it startes to cool down on 1st or 2nd January.
Climbing Tower Ridge with Alasdair and Euan today was great fun, as it always is. It's a stunning, long and varied climb, but it was not at all wintry. The Eastern Traverse had a bit of snow on it and there were a couple of small patches elsewhere. The very last 20m to the plateau was completely on snow as well. Today it was not frozen but it might be tomorrow and crampons might be needed if the snow freezes solid. We walked over to Number Four Gully and descended this back into Coire na Ciste just as the clouds cleared and gave us a view of the whole of the North Face.
The coires have snow in the top sections, above about 1000m. If you want to find some snow to stomp around on and learn some basic winter skills you might just about find something. The big easy gullies such as Tower Gully, Gullies Number Two, Three and Four, are all OK but there is good amount of rubble and a bare patch in Number Four Gully. There are no cornices to worry about. The mountain track has some ice and sections of hard snow on which are good for cramponing but it is easy enough to walk along the edges of the ice too.
The big ridges are mostly clear of snow - Tower Ridge has a few patches dotted around, the Eastern Traverse and last 20m are also covered. Castle Ridge is clear of snow, Ledge Route has a few patches, Observatory Ridge and NE Buttress have a few patches which might not be very helpful. Green Gully has melted away in the first pitch but you might still climb Number Three Gully Buttress on ice at the start and snow then rock at the top. There is still a huge patch of ice high on Hadrian's Wall Direct, just below the top. This is the most reliable patch of ice on Ben Nevis I think and is looking good but it is quite a long way to get to!
So, in general, it's a bit lean at the moment. Thankfully we have big mountaineering ridges such as Tower Ridge which are always great to climb. Curved Ridge and North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor are also good easy climbs, Barn Wall Route, Aonach Eagach and a few more ridges in Glen Coe are excellent fun while we wait for the snow and freezing conditions to return early in the New Year.
Three Gully Buttress.
Very heavy rain yesterday morning at all levels made it a miserable start to the day. The clouds cleared a little in the afternoon to reveal black mountain sides and it all looked a bit rubbish. However, it cooled enough over night for the showers to fall as snow dowwn to about 1000m and today was a cool, dry day. After getting very wet yesterday and being refrozen today the old snow that's left is pretty firm. So climbing on Ben Nevis today was actually very nice.
Matt, Sally and I went into Coire na Ciste and found the big easy gullies complete with a thin cover of firm snow, some nice ice in a few places and the rocks above 1100m starting to rime up. We climbed Number Three Gully Buttress by a slight variation on the traditional route at grade III. It was soggy on the first pitch but we placed a couple of ice screws and it was very nice. There was another team ahead of us and one behind us as well so it was a popular choice from the few options available! Green Gully was climbed as well which was thin and patchy in the first pitch and just thin afterwards!
You can get into Number Three Gully quite easily and it makes a good but steep descent with good crampons skills required. We dug a bollard and abseiled which worked well; the snow on the plateau was pretty firm but eaasy enough to dig into. With lower cloud and some more snow showers tonight the buttresses might well rime up and turn white by tomorrow.
Scotland is renowned around the world for its changeable weather. Sometimes we enjoy very bad weather with a significant amount of wind, cloud and precipitation, but we also get very fine spells of weather in between. Rapid changes in the weather bring rapid changes to winter climbing conditions and create almost unique styles of winter climbing. In this dynamic environment it can be very difficult to choose the best route to climb on any given day, especially when there are so many different types of climb to choose from.
The art of choosing the best route to climb is one that is learned through many years of trying, and often failing, to decipher the many influences of the weather. First up, you need to know about the different styles of climb and what weather is required to bring the climb into condition.
Here, in part one, we look at the many different styles of ice climb. Next time we'll look at mixed climbs.
Cascade Ice Climbs
Elsewhere in the world, ice climbing is usually cascade climbing. Waterfalls freeze in persistent cold temperatures to form cascades of pure, hard ice. A steady source of water and reliably cold weather without very much precipitation create ideal conditions for forming this kind of ice. In Scotland we do occasionally experience such conditions but they rarely stay with us for more than a couple of weeks. When our cascade ice climbs form they quickly become very popular as everyone rushes to climb them before they melt away again.
Look out for very cold weather for a week or so. The temperature needs to be below zero for many days for the ice to form. You'll find cascade climbs where a stream or spring dribbles water down a crag. Beinn Udlaidh is perfect and you can sometimes find ice climbing here with next to no snow on the ground at all. Eas Annie, Blue Ribband, Sgurr Finnisg'aig Falls and Steall Falls are all good examples of cascade climbs.
The West Coast of Scotland typically benefits from lots of snowfall accompanied by strong winds and temperatures that can change by 10C in just a few hours (and sometimes back again in the next few hours). The snow is transported by the wind to collect in sheltered slopes and funnelled by gullies. It is warmed up in the following thaw and becomes wet from partial melt or through rainfall. It then freezes into a more solid version of snow if there is a subsequent freeze. This is how snow-ice is formed and the quality of the snow-ice depends on the precise balance of volume of snow, amount and duration of thaw, rain, and how well frozen it is afterwards. With very little change in any one of these variables, the quality of the resulting snow-ice changes greatly.
Our most common and most famous style of winter climbing is snow-ice climbing in gullies. Point Five Gully is possibly the most famous example and well known the world over. It does not form just with cold weather. Instead we need snow fall and the right direction of wind to fill the gully with snow; just enough thaw to make the snow wet without melting too much away; then a good freeze to make it solid. This snow-thaw-freeze cycle needs to be repeated a few times to form sufficient snow-ice in the gully to climb. Then we need a calm day with no snowfall and a freezing level below the bottom of the route for it to be in condition.
We already have a little snow-ice in some places. Green Gully on Ben Nevis was climbed very recently although it was really quite thin! We need some more snow-thaw-freeze cycles to fatten it up.
Thin Face Snow-ice Climbs
Snow-ice forms very readily in gullies due to the funnel effect of the gully. It also forms on open cliffs, especially if the snow is wet and sticky as it falls and if rime ice grows on the rocks as well. After a whole winter of snow-thaw-freeze cycles the snow-ice on some very open faces can form into thin ice routes. These are highly sought after and typical of Scottish ice climbing - thin, bold, exposed and brilliant.
Examples include Orion Direct, Psychedelic Wall, Albatross and Journey into Space. Great names and memorable experiences! Don't expect any of these to be formed until late February or March.
Snow Patch Cascade Ice Climbs
Even more rarely, the balance of thaw and refreeze is such that a unique type of ice cascade can form. These are very similar in style of climbing as cascade climbs but instead of the water supply coming from a stream or a spring, the water is supplied by the snow patch above the climb. Once snow has built up, a thaw will allow water to run down the climb. A hard freeze will then start to form cascade style ice below the snow patch. Mega Route X is a great example of this type of climb which requires a very specific combination of lots of snow, short deep thaws and hard freezes to form. Consequently it is a very rarely formed climb, and highly prized if it is.
These are the main styles of ice climb we enjoy in Scotland. Once you know what is required to form each style of climb and can choose what will be best give the recent weather, you need to know where to find a climb of the right style at the right grade that's also safe enough to climb!
Next time, we'll have a look at different styles of mixed climb.
Cold and windy on Ben Nevis
We had a bit of a thaw earlier in the week which has stripped a lot of the snow from the mountains, but over the last day or two the temperatures have plummeted again. Elisa and Tamara are over from Belgium and with -8 degrees Celsius and 50-60 mph winds forecast for the summit of Ben Nevis we wrapped up warm for our walk.
Fortunately the sun was out but it didn't do anything to take the bite out of the wind so it was a day to keep moving, with a quick break at the only sheltered spot in at the Red Burn. It was a battle to get up the zig-zags in the wind and by the time we got to 1100m energy was low and we made the decision to turn around. We never put crampons on but as we approached our high point there was more and more snow on the path and it was frozen solid. It looked like they would have been needed if we had gone higher so should definitely be packed. Despite not making it to the summit and the tough conditions it was still a great day to be out in the mountains with beautiful views all round.
Fluffy snow on Curved Ridge.
We had a thaw on Sunday but it was only brief and there was little rain. The thin snow cover we had mostly survived and it has been cold with light snow showers since. So Lara, Sigrid and I enjoyed Curved Ridge today with a covering of soft, cold dry snow down to 500m or so and some older snow that had firmed up nicely. There was plenty of ice on the trail on the way to the start of the climbing as well as lots of ice on the slabs. Once on the ridge though it was just fluffy snow on rock and we managed to climb the whole thing without using the crampons.
The crux corner was quite tricky today and the whole climb was a bit harder than usual. With less snow covering the useful bits of rock or with more snow to make good steps in, the climbing is easier. Today we had just enough to cover up everything but not enough to be of any use. The crux corner in particular was delicate and took a moment to work out the best way to pull and push and avoid the slide back down again.
After this point we found some useful older snow with good boot steps to follow all the way to the summit. The first part of the walk down has enough old snow now to make it nice and easy going but the gully at the top of Coire na Tullach is not really full enough to make it an easy descent. We did go down this way but there were a couple of steps in it still. We'll have another brief thaw tomorrow with plenty of rain but it will go cold again afterwards by the look of it. These snow-thaw-freeze cycles are excellent for building up a base of snow that will hopefully last the rest of the winter.
Ben Nevis. The highest mountain in the UK. Tens of thousands of people reach it's summit every year and the vast majority of these are during the summer months when conditions are that bit easier and more forgiving on the inexperienced. But what about in the winter? During the winter months it becomes a whole different ball game and more skills are required to safely ascend and descend all 1345m. Do you have what it takes?
Winter often arrives on Ben Nevis as early as October and it is from this time that you should be aptly prepared. Throughout the season the snow line usually sits at about 600 to 700m, about halfway up the mountain, roughly where the path crosses the Red Burn. Up until this point the path is usually visible, even if it is covered with snow, but you should still be prepared for icy conditions and poor visibility in low clouds.
Beyond the Red Burn is where it starts to get much more serious. It is from this point that crampons are often required and an ice axe should be in your hand. You should also be prepared for there to be no path. As the snow builds up through the season it will cover all the rocks and features, and you will have to rely on your navigational skills to continue up the zig-zags. Keeping track of each corner on the zig-zags can be tough, but once you get to corner seven you will be greeted by the first of the summit cairns which gives you a nice confirmation that you are on track.
Ascending and descending the zig-zags requires good crampon technique, especially when the snow has been frozen into hard, icy neve. A trip or a slip here could have very serious consequences so you need to be comfortable on steep ground while wearing crampons, and know how to perform a self arrest using your ice axe should a slip occur. The section from 1200m to the summit and back is much less steep but this is where the ability to walk on a compass bearing and pace a distance is invaluable. With cliffs on both sides of the plateau you need to know exactly where you are at all times. The cairns across the plateau are there to help as you walk on your bearing and should not be solely relied upon as it is often not possible to see from one cairn to the next, and that's if they're not buried. In terms of avalanches, it is always good to know what is going on in the snow pack. Avalanches on this side of the mountain are rare but do occur so always check the Scottish Avalanche Information Service before heading out in winter.
Reaching the summit of Ben Nevis in winter is a fantastic experience which many people can achieve, and if you are going to go for it alone make sure you have brushed up on your navigation, crampon technique and self arrests before heading up there. And remember, if you are in any doubt just turn around. It's only a mountain after all, and it will always be there on another day.
Calm on Ben Nevis
After days of very wet and windy weather, today came as a welcome break in the recent storms, and it was perfect timing for Ben, Max, Thomas, Ernesto, Jeremy and Ben to head up Ben Nevis. The forecast gave a bit of a mixed bag, and certainly didn't promise anything special. But as we climbed so did the clouds. We expected to lose visibility at about half way but the views continued and rounding the corner at 1200m the clouds were just sitting on the summit. There was no view from the top but with the sun just breaking through it made it an incredibly beautiful and atmospheric place to be.
The snow line is currently at about 700m and with the strong winds that the snow came down in over the last couple of days there are a fair number of deep drifts around and a lot of rime higher up on the mountain. There was definitely some old snow that survived the thaw on Wednesday but it is crusty and now covered with a fresh layer so crampons and axes were not needed. It looks like we are getting a very brief thaw tomorrow which will set us up nicely for more low temperatures and snow that is due next week.
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.