Ruth and I had a very nice, dry day on Buachaille Etive Mor yesterday. We climbed North Buttress with some useful firm snow and found the top section, and the top of Coire na Tullach, scoured clear of soft snow. It warmed up gently during the day and carried on doing so last night so this morning was a bit soggy from the start and we knew we would not get the same firm snow.
We went to climb Castle Ridge to keep clear of any falling ice or cornices. In a thaw there is always something falling down so it's best not to spoend too much time in a gully. Castle Ridge was very nice although the snow was very soft and wet. Every other step sank in, and upwards progress was quite challenging at some points. There is a lot of snow though and the rocks are very well covered over making some of the route easier. The first tricky corner is much shorter than it can be. The main crux pitch, up the flake chimney hanging over the north face, is quite rattly. It seemed like some of the flakes are more hollow sounding than I remember them being previously. It might just be that they are more loose after the thaw and they will bed in again. Or it might be that they are actually getting looser.
The ridge above all the steep sections was lovely with some snow on it. This is a great section of very narrow ridge in a very impressive position. We made it to the top in very quick time and walked past the Castle Gullies. Both are just about full but the bottom chockstone of South Castle Gully is not properly covered over. This is an amazing run on skis but, right now, make sure you stop before the bottom chockstone to check it out first!
Ruth and I went up to Carn Dearg and down Ledge Route. After the snowfall at the weekend nobody had been up or down Ledge Route and we had to wade down thigh deep snow all the way! At least it will be easier if you go up the way now - it would have been a mission without any trail at all. All of Ledge Route is very well covered over with snow and we found it very easy to walk down. We did not hang around in the bottom of Number Five Gully where there was yet more fresh avalanche debris. The snow cover goes all the way down to the CIC Hut and the current thaw is not very vigorous so I think we will not lose too much snow before it freezes again at the weekend.
What is your image of a base jumper? Right at the end of January I went to Skye with Tim Howell, a base jumper and alpinist who is also a Jottnar Pro Team member. I had no idea what to expect. What would he be like? Base jumpers are all nuts aren't they? We did not have much of a plan or fixed ideas about what we would do, but I tried to go with an open mind, keen to learn as always. We also had Brodie Hood on the film camera and Hamish Frost on the stills camera with Donald King looking after them; we had a very talented team. The weather forecast was superb. It was going to be fun.
Road traffic chaos had an impact on what we did on the first day. Snow down to sea level on Skye and stuck campervans made it impossible to get to some places. We did manage to get to Old Man of Storr though and spotted a good looking cliff. So, we set off to try Skye's first base jump and, possibly, Skye's first ski-base jump. The landscape around the many pinnacles of The Storr is amazing, unlike any other place in the UK. It was covered in sparkling soft snow with dazzling sunshine and deep shadows. It was also quite windy which is not good for base jumping.
If the cliff is over 40m high and vertical then a base jump is quite viable. If it is between 30m and 40m it is more difficult, and less than 30m is too small. The cliff we found was 100m high and vertical. By leaning over the edge and dropping a small stone, you can see where it lands and use a laser range finder to measure the distance. You also need to consider whether an exit left or right is viable or a hazard, which way the wind will take you, if there is any turbulent air down from the top of the cliff and what the landing will be like. There are different ways to deploy your chute as well, depending on the height of the cliff. If it is more than 100m, a bit of free fall might be possible before the chute is opened. There's a lot to consider, and it is all considered very carefully, fully and calmly. The margins might be small but they are measured very accurately.
The wind dropped, Tim did his final checks of equipment, and made the first ski base jump on Skye. In a way it was a bit of an anti-climax. This is a good thing though. There is enough excitement in base jumping - you don't want any more drama by things not going perfectly smoothly. It's not the crazy-jumping-off-stuff pumped-up thing that you might think it is. Tim does a very good job of staying calm, relaxed and thinking straight when every fibre in his being is screaming at him. It's a lot like climbing really but packed into a shorter time frame and more intense as a result.
Next up, we went to the Great Prow of Bla Bheinn. This also has a 100m vertical drop down its front face but is located high on the mountain with the most stunning backdrop of the coire running down to the sea and hills on the far side of the loch. Standing on the edge after all the preparations, Tim asked me to unclip him. This is not something I do comfortably, standing next to a very big cliff. In fact, every part of my training so far has been about keeping people securely attached to the mountain. Tim settled, performed another perfect jump, and had a stunning flight down into the coire. He also had a much shorter walk back to the van than I had!
Our third day was to be securely attached to the mountains, no air time, no jumping off. Despite the temperature on Rannoch Moor being -12 celcius we struggled to find a crag that was white with rime. Down at Bridge of Orchy, the Messiah crag was OK in places and actually had a little ice on it. We got to the last pitch of Promised Land and enjoyed a steep, thin and tenuous pitch of ice climbing. Looking at pictures of this from previous years, the ice can be much fatter and more secure. I placed a thread around a finger fat icicle and another wrist size icicle slightly higher to protect the committing crux moves onto the thicker ice at the top.
Spending any time in our beautiful mountains in such amazing weather is a very rewarding thing to do. Spending this time with friends, learning new ways to experience, with incredible intensity, the vast scale of the landscape is even more rewarding. It's all about appreciating the beauty of wild places, immersing yourself in nature, taking on physical and mental challenges, and being grounded as a result. How you do this is down to you - there are lots of ways to have fun in the mountains. Just make sure you get out and have adventures.
Thank you to Hamish Frost for the exceptional photos. Thank you to Brodie Hood for the film. Thank you to Donald King and Tim Howell for some brilliant days in the mountains.
Climbing Tower Ridge today had all the ingredients of the full Scottish winter experience and I loved every bit of it. John and I chose this most classic of classic climbs on a day with high avalanche hazard, plenty of uncertainty about the climbing conditions, strong winds, snow showers and poor visibility. On the way up my crampon broke just as we got to the crux pitch, still with Tower Gap to cross. On the summit we could see about 10m and all we could see was white; accurate navigation was essential. It's all of these things that make Scottish winter climb such a test, and so rewarding. We both know the climb pretty well, but it was still a fantastic day out.
The high avalanche forecast was mostly for the warm spell with heavy rain during the night. Remember, the forecast period is from 6pm on the day the forecast is put out until 6pm the day afterwards. By the time we got to the start of the climb, the temperature had dropped and the surface of the snow was just starting to freeze, showing us it had started to stabilise at that altitude. So the climb up East Gully of Douglas Gap was quite secure. The snow cover on the ridge is now very good. We made very good progress over the blocks on the ridge since they are well covered with firm enough snow. The down side to this is that protection is harder to find and finding the best route can be tricky.
Higher up, the snow was less affected by the thaw and was not quite so useful. The fallen block chimney is completely filled in and the step around the block is a bit tricky, as is the crux pitch up the Great Tower. Everything is very well rimed up there and there is some ice in the cracks.
On top it was very white as well. The trail is covered in snow of course and the cairns are covered in thick rime so it is very hard to see them until you are very close to them. We pced back from the top of the ridge to find the line of the cairns and then followed 282 on the compass down onto the zig zags of the trail. There is no sign of the trail until below corner 6 at 1100m and we walked down on snow all the way to the half way point at the Red Burn crossing.
The rest of this week is forecast to be quite stormy, especially over night tonight until dawn tomorrow. John and I wanted to do some climbing and get down again fairly early so we went to Buachaille Etive Mor and climbed North Buttress. This is a favourite climb of mine, especially when it is windy. Driving up Glen Coe we had some snow showers down to the road at Lagangarbh but also some breaks in the cloud, some blue sky and a few patches of sunshine. The snow was soft and wet from a very brief but wet thaw last night so we plodded up through deep wet snow to the start of the climbing.
The climbing is on pretty solid rock with no turf required at all. If the snow is frozen it is really quite nice but the snow was all soft today with a crust higher up, so it just got in the way! It was all very white though and the views across Rannoch Moor were spectacular. Every now and then we'd get a blast of wind and a wee shower that sent spindrift down the climb but generally it was very nice.
We climbed straight up the chimneys to the terrace in six lovely pitches. Having been to the summit before we decided to go down a different way and keep out of the wind. Two teams behimnd us meant it might be a bit awkward to abseil down the route so we traversed across the top of Raven's Gully, Cuneiform Buttress and into Great Gully. We carried on traversing slightly downhill to the top of Great Gully Buttress and came down the gully between this and Broad Buttress. This is a grade I gully (does anyone know a name for it?) and when it is full of snow, like today, it makes an easy descent back to the path.
We got back to the van as the heavy snow came on and the wind picked up. Later this evening, naturally triggered avalanches started coming down the gullies and Coire na Tullach. Unfortunately there was another avalanche in Number Five Gully on Ben Nevis this morning which killed three people. There is a high avalanche hazard in Lochaber and in Glencoe now and during tomorrow. It's likely to remain very difficult in the mountains for the rest of this week. If you want to go out, plan very carefully, check the SAIS Avalanche Forecast and make sure you know how to interpret what it says. Take care, play safe.
We've just had quite a bit of fresh snow falling down to 600m or so. The strong westerly winds have blown it over onto east facuing slopes and built some big cornices. Today the visibility was in and out all day. So, there was some very good skiing to enjoy in the back coires of Aonach Mor but you had to be pretty switched on to enjoy it safely. I was skiing with Brodie, Connor, Simon and Dom, a very strong team, so we had a blast!
We warmd up with a couple of laps of The Goose which had 20cm or so of fresh soft snow and grauple and, even with a lazy start, we got some first tracks on the slopes. Next up we went for a wee skin up to Easy Gully with no intention of skiing it, given the considerable avalanche hazard. The fresh cornices were quite impressive and we managed to make some of it fall off with a stern look and a gentle tap with a boot. This cleared the gully (which had nobody in it lower down by the way!) and it seemed secure enough for us to drop in. We found a nice gentle start and skied the gully on fairly firm cleared snow until it opened out into beautiful powder in the coire lower down. There's lots of features in the slope which are normally smoothed over with deep snow. The base is very thin relatively so the run down was way more interesting than usual.
We managed to ski round to the front quite easily and had time for another lap. This time we went to the summit of Aonach Mor to ski Summit Gully. The top of this had very little cornice and much less avalanche hazard so we had a great run down, even though the light was starting to go quite flat. More powder lower down and lovely steep pitches got us to the floor of the coire, a long traverse round to the base of Rob Roy and a wee boot back to the traverse back for the gondola.
The recent fresh snow is really welcome. We have a Scottish Steep Skiing trip coming up and I was getting a bit worried that it would turn into more walking than skiing. However, this top up of snow will really help the runs and opens up more possible lines. If you've skied the back coires (Chancer, Yellow Belly, Cascades, Winger Wall) and you want to start to explore the next step up, this is the course for you. We'll start at Nevis Range and ski the back coires with tips on technique and assessment of the snow and avalanche hazard, followed by something like Summit Gully, Rush or even Easy Gully if it looks good. We'll then head into the mountains and find the best skiing we can on Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg, Creag Meagaidh or anywhere that looks good, building up confidence as we go. Get in touch if you'd like to come along!
Bob and I went back up to Coire na Ciste again today after a frost in the glen. Clouds had already built up though and it snowed on the walk in, down to around 500m or so. We went to climb Pinnacle Arete on South Trident Buttress, a really good fun route. It starts at the right end of the terrace cutting across the buttress from the slopes under Number Four Gully so you are already very high up. Tricky grooves and corners in two short pitches get you up to a big terrace. The best pitch is up the groove in the buttress above the terrace; tremendously exposed, great fun and well protected IV,5 climbing. Another pitch over the pinnacles, looking down the big corner of The Clanger, followed by one of the nices and quietest ridges on Ben Nevis got us to the top.
Snow was falling during the day and we are starting to see some reasonable snow cover coming back. Slight thaws and refreezes are helping stabilise this fresh snow and we are forecast more over the next week or so. It looks like the end of the winter might turn out to be the best bit of a very "on offy" winter.
The big easy snow gullies are full of snow but not with much depth. Number Four Gully still has some rocks poking through but there are no problems with cornices at the moment.
The big ridges are very good. Ledge Route, Castle Ridge, Tower Ridge and NE Buttress are all seeing ascents and the snow cover is generally pretty good for these climbs. Observatory Ridge is harder under powder snow and could be a bit more taxing!
The middle grade ice climbs such as South Gully, Central Gullies, Green Gully are OK but much thinner than we might normally expect at this time of year. Think of them as a grade harder than normal and you miht be about right.
None of the classic harder ice climbs such as Point Five Gully, Orion Direct and Hadrians Wall are formed. We need a few good thaw freeze cycles to form the snow ice on these before they will be good to climb. This might happen over the next week or two, there is enough time still in this winter.
Right now, the crags above 1000m are very nicely rimed and the mixed climbing is good. There's a little ice in the cracks but not too much. There is also a bit of useful snow ice on the ledges which helps many of the climbs.
Take care with the fresh snow building up and a few loose blocks still not well frozen in. But, while the snow is here, go climbing!
The wind turned round to the North and we were forecast a very cold day today so Bob and I headed up to Ben Nevis. It turned out not to be so cold on the walk in and we scratched our heads a bit about what to climb. Rain last night made the ground very wet and fresh snow on top was all a bit slushy. It did not look very promising but positive thinking is a requirement for winter climbing so we carried on. In Coire na Ciste we chatted with Richard Bentley who climbed Central Gully Right Hand yesterday on Creag Coire na Ciste. We described it very enthusiastically and said the climbing was great fun, even though there are only wee dods of hard snow and ice in the route. This persuaded us to give it a go.
We ended up climbing Central Gully, abseiling back down to climb Central Gully Right Hand to the top and descending Number Three Gully to climb South Gully. We went down Number Three Gully again into the coire to walk out. Three routes of great climbing with far less ice than is normal making it much more thought provoking and careful climbing. The protection is not great but there is some. I even placed a very good ice screw. The crags above 1000m are well rimed and reasonably well frozen. The tops of the crags have been scoured in the strong wind and the big easy gullies have firm snow and no cornices. So, it turned out to be an excellent day of climbing. Our presistence paid off. Number Three Gully Buttress was a popular and very good choice for today and Richard climbed Green Gully (very carefully!).
The snow made a very welcome return last night. Over the weekend it cooled down a bit and we got some fresh snow on the tops, but a lot of rain as well! Last night it snowed dopwn to 600m and there was quite a lot of it too. Will, Jonathan and I walked up the Allt a'Mhuilinn through a few last heavy showers of grauple and snow to climb NE Buttress. I was expecting this to be quite a slow, arduyous climb with soft snow on rocks, but this is not how it turned out.
Over the weekend we got some wet snow and a brief warmer spell, possibly with rain at most levels. So, when this wet snow froze it made some slightly firmer crispy snow which made the climbing on NE Buttress really very nice. Progress was aided by enough firm snow on the ledges to make the cramponing steady away. There was even some ice on the turf and in the wet corners. It felt properly wintry and was very well rimed up too. The rime is quite thick and icy already but omes away easily enough if you are digging for protection.
The Mantrap does not have ice in the cracks so it is OK to climb, and the Forty Foot Corner is quite alright as well. Altogether, it was a fantastic climb, much better than I thought it might be.
Over in Number Three Gully there was a small avalanche caused by someone climbing up the gully. We've just had a good bit of fresh snow after a long thaw - the new snow will need some time to settle down a bit. Cornices are still generally fairly small though. Fresh snow will accumulate this week from steady showers each day. The rocks need some time to refreeze, as does the turf, but there's some fun mixed climbing to do.
The recent warm, dry spell of weather has got us thinking about the Cuillin Ridge on Skye. A traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is a classic expedition that many people aspire to. What most people underestimate is just how big a challenge it is and how well it measures up to anything else in the world. It is truly world class.
Black Cuillin, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Eleven Munro’s are climbed on the full traverse, the highest being Sgurr Alasdair, 992m
A traverse of the full ridge often starts with Gars Bheinn on the south end and goes north to finish on Sgurr nan Gillean.
The walk out will feel far longer than it really is but you do eventually reach the Sligachan for a well earned celebration.
From Gars Bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean is 11km including the short extra bits to get to Sgurr Dubh Mor and Sgurr Alasdair. There’s also 1750m of ascent going along the ridge. Add on to this the walk in (2.5km and 895m ascent from Loch Scavaig) and walk out (5km to Sligachan) making it 18.5km with 2645m ascent.
The exact route taken is open to much variation and you’ll need to decide your rules of engagement. Taking all the easiest options means there are several sections at grade Difficult that must be climbed and a few abseils. Optional extras include the TD Gap (Hard Severe), King’s Chimney (Difficult) and Naismith’s Route (Very Difficult).
Guidebook and Map
The SMC guidebook “Skye Scrambles” has a good description of all the individual sections as well as good diagrams. Andy Hyslop’s mini guide to the ridge is possibly the best resource to have though. The Harvey’s map “Skye The Cuillin” is the best map and is printed on waterproof paper. It’s at 1:25,000 but has the main ridge at 1:12,500 scale and also describes common routes on the sides of the main ridge.
The logistics can be awkward down to the single track roads and the length of the traverse. Two cars are often necessary and being based at Sligachan is probably best. Leave one car here and drive to Elgol to take the boat to Loch Scavaig. If it all works out you will get back to Sligachan after the traverse. However, if you escape off the ridge early you will end up in Glen Brittle a long way from your car.
Going from South to North as is most common in the summer, you have two options.
From Glen Brittle camp site it is best to walk up the newly made path to Coir a’Ghrunnda. There is good water here so you don’t have to carry any for the two hour walk in. A short boulder slope from the west end of the loch takes you to the crest of the ridge. Dump the bags and go out to Sgurr nan Eag to start your traverse from there.
The better option these days is to take the fast boat from Elgol to Loch Scavaig. You can ask to be dropped off on the west shore for the easiest route up to Gars Bheinn where purists will say you have to start anyway. This approach has the added dimension of a boat trip making the whole enterprise feel that much more adventurous, and is recommended.
There is far too much detail in the 11km along the ridge to include much of a description here. There is continuous scrambling and occasional sections of rock climbing. Getting along the ridge involves more route finding skills than navigation and it takes a while to get used to the structure of the rock to choose the best route. There are a few sections where time can be saved (or lost) with a bit of knowledge of the best line to take so spending a few days scoping out these sections is time well spent. In the mist, completing the traverse is all but impossible without prior knowledge of the best line.
Sections to scope out include –
Sgurr nan Eag and Sgurr Dubh Mor. Sgurr nan Eag involves only very simple scrambling if the best line is taken, this being on the west side of the crest. Sgurr Dubh Mor has a complex line that is particularly confusing in the mist.
You can lose a lot of time in the TD Gap so it might be worth doing this with your rucksack on or practicing hauling your packs. It’s good to know how to avoid it as well in case it turns out to be wet – traverse under the west side of the TD Gap on a trail in the scree to the Bad Step of the south west ridge of Sgurr Alasdair. Scramble up this and reach the top of Sgurr Alasdair.
Sgurr a’Mhadaidh and Bidein Druim nan Ramh are complex peaks, each with several tops. The central peak of Bidein usually requires an abseil to descend and finding the abseil point is tricky as it is not obvious.
Best tactics for a complete traverse
Spend some time on the ridge before you set out on your traverse. The Cuillin hills are unique in the UK for their continuously rocky nature and the relentless exposure on the crest of the ridge. It’s the never ending concentration required that is so draining for most people and getting used to the scrambling both up and down will help with this. By moving efficiently and confidently on exposed sections you’ll save lots of energy, both physical and mental, so get some long days in on the ridge first.
Set your rules of engagement. What is your objective? To reach all eleven Munros? To get from end to end? To do these and to climb the TD Gap and Naismith’s Route? Make sure you agree your objectives with your partners but be prepared to change these if the weather does not work out as expected.
Decide whether to bivi on the ridge. Watching the sun set over the sea from a camp on the crest of the ridge and scrambling on the ridge in the early hours of the next day are great experiences. The down side is carrying the extra gear required. Going light and fast is great, as long as you do move fast. Even then you should expect one of the longest days of mountaineering you’ll ever do. Another idea if the forecast is good, is to have a big dinner then walk up in the evening to sleep on the ridge. You’ll have less to carry then and will have a head start on the traverse.
Why is it so special?
It’s the toughest single mountaineering challenge in the UK so it’s always going to be valued very highly. However, there is so much more than this. Being on an island and rising straight out of the sea makes the setting outstanding. Sections of the ridge require you to stay absolutely on the crest with the full drop down to the sea on one side and down to Loch Coruisck on the other. The nature of the volcanic rocks is fascinating, following stepped dykes sometimes and crossing the many gaps where dykes cutting across the ridge have eroded. The combination of all these makes it very special but it’s even more special because you have to work hard and have some good luck to complete a traverse. As with most things, the more you have to work to achieve something, the better the reward.
We have guides available to help you complete a full traverse on any dates. Have a look here for full details. We also have four day trips to reach as many Munros in the Cuillin as possible. In good weather all 11 can be reached in four days. The cost is £470 per person for the four days and dates are 13th - 16th May and 24th - 27th September. Details here - Cuillin Munro Bagging.
We set a new record today for the most people climbing on Rannoch Wall on a February day. Given the dry warm weather it was an obvious choice but I still didn't expect quite so many people to be there enjoying the conditions. Elved, Tony and I were the fifth team up Agag's Groove, the best V.Diff. rock climb in the world, and several teams abseiled back down for multiple laps of the crag. January Jigsaw, Grooved Arete, Crowberry Ridge Ordinary Route, D Gully Buttress and Curved Ridge were all enjoyed by lots of people sharing a crag in very good humour.
For Elved, Tony and I, Agag's Groove was enough for the one day Elved climbs with a prosthetic foot after a climbing accident and this was the first rock climbing in ten years for Tony! We flowed up the route very nicely though and enjoyed the sensational exposure and sense of vast place above Rannoch Moor.
So soon after the cold weather there are more than a few slightly mobile holds so a little care should be taken. The nice wobbly spike right at the crux fell off a while ago last year but this has not really affected the moves past it to be honest. John, Jon and Tamsin enjoyed a lap and a half of the crag as well next to us, and our mountaineering course finished with a climb of Ledge Route. The settled dry and warm weather will be with us for another couple of days by the look of it before it cools down at theweekend and we go back to more normal weather and temperature for the time of year.
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.