After the warm rain of Christmas there is still a little snow left in the Highlands. Most of it is in the big gullies and high corries of the highest peaks and most of it was very nicely frozen today. A ridge of high pressure brought clear calm weather last night allowing the humidity and temperature to drop, and the snow to freeze. It's worth noting that the grass was well frozen at the CIC Hut this morning, even after only one cold night, showing us the ground is cold and ready to hold snow and form ice for us. All we need is a few falls of snow without the big thaws in between so that the snow cover can build up a bit.
Even so, we have more snow than we had at this time last year. Number Two Gully is complete as well as the major grade I gullies on Ben Nevis. Gardyloo Gully is quite well filled in as well. I climbed this in January last winter and found a really nice steep ice pitch underneath the chockstone. I think this ice pitch is covered with snow already and the grade might be more like a II at the moment. You could possibly get up Number Three Gully Buttress and a team went round the first pitch of Glover's Chimney to climb the rest of this route to Tower Gap today.
James, Skye and I went to climb Tower Ridge which turned out to be an excellent choice and popular! Other teams were climbing Ledge Route and Number Three and Four Gyllies, but there were also at least six other teams on Tower Ridge as well as us. It is not in easy condition - there is verglas on the rocks all the way to the top of the Little Tower and not much snow. What snow there is on the climb was very nicely frozen today and very helpful for us. We put on the crampons at the bottom of the Little Tower but other peopl put on theirs before us, and another team put theirs on much later! It's a bit wkward to know what is best.
Despite the number of people climbing we all got on very well, there was little hold up, and it was a lovely day. Light winds and expansive views helped! Unfortunately we might be back to low cloud, drizzle and a gentle thaw tomorrow. It's not all thaw on the forecast but there is not very much new snow forecast either. The long term forecast for January indicates general temperatures above average or the time of year so it could be a bit like last winter when we take what we get when we can get it. Days like today are a blessing and to be made the most of.
So the decade that started with the legendary winter of 2010, with super cold easterly winds and great volumes of snowfall, might go out with a winter notable for it's warmth and low snow cover if it turnes out like last winter again. It could be that global climate change is showing its face through the great variability of Scottish winter weather. Just about all the snow patches melted away in Scotland in the summer of 2019 and they all went in the summer of 2017. Then again, the winter of 2018 was the coldest for 25 years. It's so hard to say if there is any trend and one thing is for sure, the Scottish winters will always keep us on our toes! Happy adventures in 2020; make them deep and meaningful.
On Tuesday of last week it rained heavily at all levels for much of the day and it was really warm. Since then it has been a lot colder, lots of snow has fallen and ice is starting to form quite well. All the water in the ground has been dribbling out of the cracks and down the gullies, mixing with the snow that's been swirling around and cascading down the crags, to form some nice looking snow-ice. Last night gave us a frost as well with odd showers of rain at low levels so we started off with a really awkward bit of ice on the tracks and trails. Susanne and I put our crampons on just a couple of hundred metres up the Allt a Mhuilinn path and kept them on all day.
Susanne has done a lot of trekking in Nepal and is away to have a go at Mera Peak in March. She was here to get some experience of wearing crampons and of doing the kind of ropework she'll need to do in Nepal. On Monday we went up Stob Ban North Ridge which was a wade fest in the soft snow above 400m! Yesterday we went to the Pink Rib of Beinn a'Chrulaiste which had a good amount of snow on it even though it has been facing the wind. Walking down was another plod through thick deep snow, even at 650m above sea level. Today we went up to the CIC Hut under the North Face of Ben Nevis and enjoyed the good path and a trail in the snow! We had a go at glacier travel ropework just above the hut. There is so much snow there it felt just like being on a glacier!
All the major gullies on Ben Nevis are full of snow and the boulder fields in the corries are covered as well. There are sizeable soft cornices above the gullies and the snow is all soft with lots of windslab. Avoid the gullies for a while! Snow-ice climbs are starting to form some ice. Point Five Gully and Hadrians Wall Direct have a little ice on them. After the thaw freeze cycles forecast over the next few days, we might have some climbing to do. There is also ice forming nicely on routes such as Gemini, Waterfall Gully and Boomers Requiem.
The crags are white and have a very good cover of snow and rime on them. There might well be ice in the cracks making mixed climbing tricky and slow going, and wading up to the crags will be hard work. The big ridges are well covered and will be lovely to climb after the snow has been transformed into snow-ice. If we get the right combination of thaw and freeze over the next week or so, we will have some great conditions for climbing. The long term forecast suggests a return to colder conditions after Christmas. Fingers crossed it all works out!
Scottish winter climbing is world renowned for its adventure and quality of experience. Nowhere is it better than on Ben Nevis. So popular and well known is Ben Nevis, that climbers from all parts of the globe can be heard calling to each other while enjoying the unique style of climbing found here. The traditional approach to climbing is strongly maintained and the history of the climbs is well remembered. Modern ice climbing was developed here and that heritage adds greatly to the modern day climbing experience.
Harold Raeburn made the first ascent of Green Gully just over one hundred years ago which remained the hardest ice climb in the world for early 30 years. In his expedition report he apologised for not being able to climb the main objective, Comb Buttress, and being forced to go for the lesser objective of the gully running up its side. He was a man very far ahead of his time and his ice axe plays a significant role in the Scottish Mountaineering Club to this day.
In the winter of 1960 Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith completed the most significant week of climbing ever achieved in Scotland. Orion Direct, Smith's Route, Minus Two Gully and the first single day and free ascent of Point Five Gully were amongst the seven climbs they completed on consecutive days. All of this was achieved with a single ice axe each and crampons with no front points. Jimmy Marshall is renowned as the master of climbing ice by step cutting and was the main driver behind the amazing week of first ascents he made in 1960 with Robin Smith, often referred to as
"The Pinnacle" of the step cutting era.
Ten years later in 1970 Yvon Chouinard made a brief visit which was to trigger a change that would revolutionise winter climbing. Using prototype curved ice hammers he made some very fast ascents demonstrating how to climb ice by direct aid, hanging off the pick itself embedded in the ice. Comparing techniques with John Cunningham, Hamish MacInnes and many others, modern ice climbing was born.
That year Hamish MacInnes developed "The Terrordactyl", a short, all metal ice tool with a steeply dropped pick. The "Terror" and Chouinard's ice hammer dominated the forefront of international ice climbing for several years. Eventually these two designs were combined to create the banana pick which is still the basis for modern ice tool design. Today, nearly fifty years on from The Terrordactyl, we are still using the same techniques. It's no exaggeration to say that modern ice climbing technique was developed in Lochaber and Hamish MacIness was at the forefront of this.
Currently, the hardest naturally protected winter mixed climb in the world is on Ben Nevis - Anubis, climbed by Dave MacLeod. Ben Nevis has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and is now again at the forefront of winter climbing. By continuing to be the venue for cutting edge climbs with the style of climbing and protection we’ve used for over one hundred years, Ben Nevis is setting a worldwide standard for climbing and continues to produce some of the finest climbers in the world. Our style of adventurous climbing is now seeing a resurgence in other countries and our ethos of mountaineering is worth defending.
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.