Snow has arrived.
Snow has been building up nicely over the last week. On the west coast we have had a good amount of snow, down to the roads on a few occasions, interspersed with quite quick thaw freeze cycles. Snow - thaw - freeze cycles are great for locking snow in place and building good climbing conditions. We are still in the building phase, but it is looking promising. The outlook weather forecast looks OK as well, with mixed weather but generally cold for the next couple of weeks.
After the Christmas feast it was nice to get back out again to burn off some extra calories, especially to find some snow and ice around to play on. This week I have been delivering an Intro to Winter Climbing course with Laura, Simon and Kenny.
Yesterday we went to Stob Coire nan Lochan where we found a nice little ice cascade. We placed some ice screws and climbed the ice on a top-rope before walking round into Broad Gully. Buried axe anchors got us up Broad Gully with a stomper at the top, the first graded winter climb for the team. Today we took it to another level by climbing Curved Ridge. This now has quite a lot of fresh, soft snow on it which made the climbing quite insecure. Handholds were buried but the snow was useless for ice axes. Foot ledges were also hidden, so it was all a bity tricky. The team took it in their stride though and we topped out into very strong westerly winds. It was a battle to get down to the top of Coire na Tulaich and we had to be careful with the build up of fresh snow at the top but we got down into the coire and out of the wind.
Rannoch Wall was plastered in snow today and it would have been a good day to climb Agag's Groove or Engineers Cracks. The turf is well frozen above 600m or so. So, mixed climbs that do not need any ice are pretty good to climb right now. There are a couple of crusty layers in the snow which is not ideal since the thaw - freeze cycles this week were very quick (over night) so the snow has not been fully transformed into snow-ice. A few more, deeper thaw - freeze cycles will do a good job of bringing a few ice climbs into condition.
A nice start.
Today was a lovely day to be on Ben Nevis or any other mountain in Scotland. Lawan and I went up Ledge Route to the summit of Ben Nevis on crispy snow in the sunshine, and it was fabulous. It couldn't have been more different to the soaking I got yesterday!
Wet snow gave way to a brief thaw yesterday before a clear night made the temperature fall away again. So, the wet, fresh snow froze to make it crusty in some places and firm in others where the snow was quite thin. The rocks were really quite icy with verglas and there is thick icy rime on many of the buttresses. But progress up Ledge Route was easy and beautiful, with amazing views in every direction.
There is patchy snow cover from the foot of Number Five Gully and Coire na Ciste upwards. We put our crampons on in Number Five Gully and were grateful for them on the first ramp out rightwards. There is a big patch of ice on the rocky slab, and another (avoidable) on the turn back left above The Curtain. After that, there is a nice thin layer of crispy snow on all the rocks.
The ice is left over from the long cold spell when lots of ice formed in drainage lines. Cascade climbs such as Waterfall Gully and Compression Cracks are fully iced up, and Garadh Gully and Glover's Chimney are close to being formed. We had a big thaw on Monday that did not wipe out all the snow and ice that we had before, but it probably detached some of the ice from the rocks as water ran down the gap, so it would be worth leaving it a day or two in freezing weather to stick itself back on again.
There is enough snow in the coires to make progress up to the climbs quite nice, and the big snow gullies are complete with snow, but are certainly not very full. Number Two Gully probably has an ice pitch or two in it.
The big ridges will be nice with this thin covering of crispy snow, but not easy. Verglas on the rocks and not enough snow to fill in all the gaps between the rocks will make an ascent quite slow going.
For the steep mixed climbing, there is not much rime and many of the buttresses still look black. There is some rime but also some thick icy stuff that might make mixed climbing quite hard work as well.
The ground is very cold though, and colder weather is forecast over the weekend, so it is a nice start to the winter. Any more snow we get now will not just melt away at the first thaw, it will be more likely to stay around for a while.
So, today was a fantastic day for Lawan to enjoy his first climb up Ben Nevis. Neither of us was expecting it to be quite so nice, but we soaked up the atmosphere, the views and were very happy to stay completely dry today and be able to hang around and enjoy the whole experience.
Happy Christmas folks! Happy climbing!
Planning for a winter walk.
When planning a walk it is very easy to fall into the trap of selecting a particular mountain days or weeks in advance and then just going with it, even though the conditions on the day are terrible. In this blog post we will take you through the steps to follow when planning your next walk.
What is the weather forecast?
You probably already have a rough area in mind, or a limit on how far you are willing to drive. So what is the weather going to be doing in that area? Firstly, you need to find the correct weather forecast - the weather on the mountain summits is very different to down in the towns. There are a lot of options so have a look at as many as you can. The forecasts will vary slightly from one another but by looking at all of them you will get a good idea of what is likely to happen. Here are a few that we use regularly:
The weather can vary greatly in different parts of the country so, if you are fortunate enough to live in the middle of Scotland, then you could go east or west to find better weather. The prevailing weather comes from the south west so when it is raining and snowing on the west coast you may well find sunshine in the Cairngorms (and vice versa if the weather is coming from the east). If you don't have that option and the weather is not ideal then you can pick a mountain that offers you some shelter for much of the day meaning you only have to be out in the wind and snow while you quickly tag the summit. Or do you need to go to a summit at all? It is possible to have a nice day out in the mountains without going to a summit. If you're desperate for a summit remember there are a lot of lovely smaller hills and mountains around. It's not all about bagging the Munros!
You should also think about the terrain that you will be on during your walk. If high winds are forecast or a particularly gusty wind then an exposed ridge is not going to be a good place to be. Sticking to broader, open slopes is a safer option for windy days. It is also worth thinking about which direction you do your walk. Will you be walking into the wind or with the wind when you are heading back to the car with tired legs? Is the weather going to improve or deteriorate through the day? If you are going onto a narrow ridge will it be better earlier or later in the day? Should you get an early start or would you be better off waiting for the weather to clear up a little before setting off?
There are lot of things to consider with the weather but with a bit of practice you can select routes that are appropriate for the weather, and still have a pleasant walk on some fairly wild days.
What is the avalanche forecast?
Here in Scotland we are incredibly fortunate to have daily avalanche forecasts for six different areas of the country. These are provided by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) and the areas covered are Glencoe, Lochaber, Creag Meagaidh, Northern Cairngorms, Southern Cairngorms and Torridon.
If you know you are going out at the weekend start reading the avalanche forecasts during the week so by the time it gets to the day of your walk you have a good idea about what is going on within the snow pack. So what are the key bits of information you need when you are planning your walk? There's a lot more about How to Read an Avalanche Forecast in our blog here.
Firstly, READ THE TEXT! This will give you a lot more information than just looking at the diagram. So what is the avalanche hazard on different slope aspects (the direction the slope faces)? What is the altitude of the avalanche hazard and where does it change? What are the hazards? How will the hazard level change through the day?
Once you have all the information you will know which slopes you don't want to be on or under (even if the ground you are on is not going to avalanche it might be at risk of avalanche from above) and you can think about your safe options. With the prevailing wind coming from the south-west, quite often (but not always!) south, south-west and west facing slopes will be wind scoured and have a lower avalanche hazard. In a south-westerly wind the snow will be picked up and transported to north, north-east and east facing slopes, increasing the hazard level here. But this doesn't rule out every single slope that faces north, north-east and east. Look at the altitude of the avalanche hazard and perhaps you can stay below it. And remember that avalanches are most likely to occur on a slope angle between 30 and 45 degrees.
Before you send your brain into meltdown trying to count contour lines and work out the gradient, check out FATMAP. This is a fantastic and free tool that, with the use of the gradient layer, allows you to quickly see how steep the terrain is and which slopes you should be avoiding. By staying on slopes that are less than 30 degrees you will greatly reduce your chance of being caught in an avalanche.
Look closely at the terrain you will be on or under. Coires, or bowls, tend to collect a lot of snow so not only will it be really hard work to plough through a coire filled with fresh snow, but the avalanche hazard is likely to be higher. On the other hand, ridges stick up into the wind and get a lot of the snow blown off them, usually making them a safer option.
As with the weather there is a lot to know about snow and avalanches. If in doubt stick to wind scoured slopes, keep the slope angle down and remember that "ridges are bridges". If you want to learn more you can delve into the vast amount of information on the SAIS website or book yourself onto an Avalanche Awareness or Winter Skills course. You'll be amazed at what you'll learn about snow!
What about you?
You have read the weather and avalanche forecasts, but what about you and anyone who is joining you on your walk? It would be silly to plan a long day with lots of steep, technical terrain if you are just getting over a cold and your friend has never used crampons and an ice axe before.
Think about the group's ability and experience level and make sure you plan something that is suitable for every member. Are you confident and comfortable using crampons and an ice axe on steep ground? Can you navigate in a whiteout using a map and compass? Do you have enough warm and waterproof clothing for the conditions? Are you feeling physically and mentally up to the route that you have planned? What do you want to get out of the day?
It is really important to be flexible in winter and maybe have plans B, C, D etc to fall back on. The weather might not be as forecast, you may have woken up feeling unwell or perhaps the snow has been transported to unexpected places. Remember that there is no shame in turning around and the summits will always be there on another day.
Becoming a British Mountain Guide.
This was a pivotal moment in my life, a moment of very careful consideration that changed the direction of everything I was working towards. My life hinged around this moment, turned to a new path, one which I have followed without looking back ever since.
The moment was at the age of 17 with my university application form, neatly filled in with my best hand writing for aeronautical engineering courses, sealed in the envelope and held in the mouth of the letterbox. I was at the point of dropping it in when I took a moment to consider the impact of letting go.
My Dad always said that I never made a paper aeroplane that did not fly. With a bit of shaping and tinkering I could always get a reasonable flight out of anything. I went on to build planes from cardboard (called Gonzo after the Muppet with a long bent nose after a heavy landing) and expanded polystyrene with a wing span nearly as big as my arm span. I remember taking these two planes in to cubs and flying the length of the church hall in front of all the other cubs.
The romantic notion of designing fast jets was chipped away by my CDT course. We went on field trips to the Clarks shoe factory and another batch process factory where we saw the day to day reality of a life in engineering. It was clear that I would not be sketching aeroplanes and following the design process through to its eventual first test flight. Instead I would be a small part in a big team of people sat at desks working on computers. The big vision of designing aeroplanes would come down to a daily grind of tinkering on a screen with momentary high points as a new plane is launched.
So I was there with the application form in the envelope in the mouth of the letterbox trying to work out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I did realise at the time that this was a pivotal moment.
It came down to this – I did not want to spend my life inside, behind a desk, no matter how interesting the work would be. I wanted a career outdoors, exploring new places and foreign countries. How I knew this I’m not totally sure since I had not done very much travelling. I’d been to Greece and done some walking and cycle touring, I’d done lots of walking on Dartmoor and in the Lake District, I’d had a taster rock climbing session and I was heavily in to mountain biking. It was enough to realise that a lifetime of exploring mountains and wild places would be the way to go.
How to get there was the next problem. I thought that having a degree would be a good plan in case my dream did not come true. These days I would have studied in Fort William on the Adventure Tourism Management or Adventure Performance and Coaching course. Back then the closest I could find was a Sports and Exercise Science course at Birmingham University. The thought of going to Birmingham did not appeal but crucially they have an outdoor centre on Coniston Water in The Lake District. Instead of studying athletics, football and rugby I studied mountaineering, sailing and kayaking.
First year students go on a week long, multi-activity course to have a go at all the different activities. In the second and third years there was the possibility to work on the course delivering rock climbing, walking and mountain biking sessions to the first year students. I jumped at the chance and ended up working with Libby Peter, a BMG mountain guide. This was just before I left university and it focussed my direction even further. Libby is an inspiration and I decided then that I would become a mountain guide. The ability to work anywhere in the world taking people up mountains was exactly what I wanted to do and the IFMGA being the top qualification in the world made it all the more appealing.
Ten years later I got my badge after a brilliant ski touring assessment around Mont Velan, after three years of exceptionally hard work on the BMG scheme of training and assessment. I’d already been to Kenya and Tajikistan to guide trips and gone to the Caucasus and Nepal on personal trips. Getting your BMG badge is one of those moments that you will always remember but this was step forwards in the direction I had chosen many years before.
So, I’m very lucky. I am doing the best job for me that continues to challenge and inspire me. I get to live in Fort William, The Outdoor Capital of the UK, and raise my children here. My guiding supports my family and gives me the opportunity to go and do some of the best climbing in the world. But most of all, I’m lucky to have known what I want to do for the rest of my life at the tender age of 17. My life pivoted around that moment when I had the confidence to change path. The Association of British Mountain Guides made it possible and I’ve never looked back.
If you are thinking about becoming a mountain guide, go for it!
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.