“Is this safe?” was the question asked of me as we descended Mont Blanc. At that moment the person I was with needed reassurance, not an assessment of the hazards, their associated risks and management. So, I said “Yes, totally safe”. This was a lie of course, descending Mont Blanc is never totally safe, mountaineering is dangerous and there are inherent risks. We got down to the Aiguille du Midi and took the telepherique down to Chamonix, an experience that was, to my client, more terrifying and seemingly less safe than climbing Mont Blanc!
All this got me thinking about what is safe, how safe is safe and how safe should we try to make climbing?
It seems to me that the goal is not to make climbing as safe as possible. The goal is to make it safe enough.
There are risks in everything that we do, and there are certainly risks involved with mountaineering and climbing. It’s good to try our best to reduce the risks through training and equipment, techniques and good planning, but there will always be some risk and accidents will happen. In the event of an accident, we should not necessarily change things and put safer systems in place so that kind of accident can never happen again. If we do this, we will eventually change the activity so much that it will not be climbing anymore as we know it.
We do need to learn from our mistakes, self-reflection and peer-reflection are very important, and many accidents are made through mistakes that could have been avoided. However, there is an end point at which we need to accept that certain accidents are inherent in the activity, and need to be accepted (or we don’t take part in the activity).
There is a very good analogy between climbing and driving on the road. There are many rules and ways of driving that make it safer, but it is certainly not as safe as possible. If the speed limit was 20mph everywhere, or if we had dual carriageways everywhere, there would be far fewer accidents. However, we have decided that driving is safe enough and we have accepted that a certain number and type of accidents are inevitable with the current system that makes travelling by road feasible.
The gold standard we are trying to achieve is to know that what we are doing is safe enough, as safe as it can be while still allowing us to go climbing. This is actually quite hard to do because the feedback we get is not always very helpful. When we go and do something, it might work out nicely, but we might be unaware that we were very close to having something go wrong. I have seen many climbers operating with pretty sloppy ropework but they have never had a problem and have always received positive feedback from their techniques, in the form of not having an accident and going home in one piece.
This is especially the case in avalanche terrain. It is possible to walk or ski across a snow slope and think that we made a very good decision about the stability of the snow based on the fact that we did not cause an avalanche. However, we might have been very close to triggering the slope to avalanche. The feedback is either trigger an avalanche or don’t trigger one. We can get positive feedback (no avalanche) when we should have got negative feedback (we were very close to triggering an avalanche). What would be useful is feedback that is not binary (did or did not avalanche) but graduated (we were 95% of the way to triggering an avalanche). Unfortunately, this kind of feedback is not available.
Feedback on an individual level can be quite unreliable. However, feedback on the level of the entire climbing community is better. If there is a significant number of accidents associated with a particular technique or piece of equipment, we should notice this, investigate the problem and do something about it. In avalanche education, we have gone through this process. We realised that people getting hurt in avalanches were often doing so not because of a lack of understanding of avalanches, but because of human factors in their decision making. As a result, we now have excellent resources and training that is aimed at helping us understand human factors in decision making and how to avoid letting them influence our decisions negatively.
All of this was very much on my mind yesterday as Doug and I climbed NE Buttress on Ben Nevis. It felt very serious, but always safe enough. Doug and I both understood the task and the risks, the systems that we were using and how to use them properly, and we discussed and agreed on our strategy at every step. I didn't take many photos because I was working hard, observing, calculating, judging, trying to work out the balance of risk all the time.
The wind was very strong in the morning but forecast to drop off later in the day; there might be windslab on the approach; actually the approach traverse was boiler-plate icy snow, sideways on grade I gradients, with anchors every 30m or so; we moved together quite a bit, increasing speed but decreasing security; we pitched the hard bits, four pitches in total; the snow was really solid so falling would have been difficult with ice axes in the snow; the consequence of a fall would have been disastrous; the wind did drop off as expected; the cracks in The Mantrap were clear of ice and the Forty Foot Corner had some nice bits of snow-ice; it was pretty white on top, we had to concentrate to find the summit and the way down.
NE Buttress is one of the finest winter mountaineering expeditions in the country and it was awesome yesterday!
Tom was lucky enough to book onto one of our Classic Winter Climbing trips and end up being by himself for the week. This is less sociable of course but has meant that we can do just about whatever he wanted. Luckily, Tom wanted to explore the mixed up world of mixed climbing, lucky because there has been a lot of snow, continuous low temperatures and a persistent Considerable avalanche hazard. We need snow-thaw-freeze cycles to form snow-ice in our classic climbs. We have the snow and the freeze but without the thaw periods the snow has not transformed into ice or settled down into stable snow. So, it would have been all mixed climbs on buttresses anyway.
Rachael joined us on Monday and we started with Castle Ridge. This grade III is a classic ridge on Ben Nevis but it has a very distinct crux pitch in a steep chimney. With two ice axes and some comfort in hooking them into cracks and around chock-stones, this pitch can feel secure and fun to climb, but it is also incredibly exposed, awkward and pretty tough for many grade III climbers. We had a lovely day and we were suspicious of the snow everywhere, but we went up to Carn Dearg and descended Ledge Route back down into Coire na Ciste. Above 900m or so, there is a lot of snow and everything is very well filled in, so walking down Ledge Route was nice.
Tuesday took us to North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor. This is a fantastic climb with a very good ratio of walking to climbing. Seven pitches of climbing up the continuous line of chimneys got us to the walking section to the top. This is another rocky mixed climb that can build a bit of snow-ice, something that does change the grade, just the style of climbing. There was a bit of useful snow but also lots of hooking in cracks and teetering on little ledges with front points. Precision and accuracy are required more than strength - there is very little swinging of ice axes in rocky mixed climbing, just lots of scraping and searching for good hooks.
North Buttress is a popular climb and we enjoyed the company of three other teams on the climb. On Wednesday we went to where we knew there would be nobody else. In fact we didn't see anyone from leaving the van to getting back to it. We went to the West face of Aonach Beag where we climbed Raw Egg Buttress on the crag of the same name. Tom is very fit which is just as well - this is not a roadside crag. Three hours of rough ground, crusty snow and wading through deep drifts of fresh snow got us to the climb.
Raw Egg Buttress is an icy mixed climb, requiring a bit of ice in the grooves. We found plenty of ice, some snow-ice as well as some little bits of cascade ice that had formed from dribbles of water on the route. The buttress is a broken mass of pinnacles, blocks, walls and grooves. Punchy moves were separated by easy sections that benefited from the snow-ice. The last little wall was particularly spicy, with protection far below and a steep pull on dods of turf and nothing very much for the feet at all. The wind was blowing us up the wall but it also blew snow into our faces so we could not see very much and our eyebrows and lashes got well rimed up. Beautiful views from the top made up for the misty walk in and we got a great feeling of being out in the wilds in wild weather.
Not being afraid of a chunky walk in, today Tom and I went to Church Door Buttress. This a fabulous place for mixed climbing, home to some of the best and most charismatic climbs in Scotland. We had great fun in Western Chimney where we found lots of very helpful snow-ice, and lots of snow in general that had been blown up into the chimney. The crux overhangs quite considerably so this snow was no use there and we decided that we should bring more forearms next time!
We climbed up to the Great Arch enjoying the icy mixed climbing and cool moves. Protection is quite well buried or covered up in rimes, and then quite hard to dig out. Cracks are well iced up, but there is a lot of useful snow. This was Tom's first visit to Church Door Buttress so, to give him a feel for the place, we abseiled off the arch into Central Gully. This is 60m of vertical ground down under the arch, looking into Crypt Route all the way down. It's a very exciting abseil! Tomorrow will be a beautiful day with lots of sunshine and lighter winds so I think we will go back up Ben Nevis for another ultimate classic ridge.
This spell of cold weather will end on Saturday. We have a few days of thaw forecast from Saturday afternoon along with some light rain at all levels. This will make route choice quite tricky at the weekend and it might trigger some of the windslab to avalanche. After a few days the avalanche hazard will reduce again, especially when we return to colder weather. Hopefully some of the fantastic cover of snow we have now will turn into ice on the climbs and bring some ice routes into good climbing condition. So far, it is shaping up to be a very good winter for climbing.
We have space on our Classic Winter Climbing trip in March (13th to 17th March) as well as availability for private guiding in the week of 6th to 10th March. Get in touch if you'd like to book either of these.
This week has been very much like January on the west coast of Scotland should be - cold, wet and windy. Each day, Richard, Phil and I have come back soaked, battered and exhausted. Each evening we have dried out all our gear ready to do it all again the next day. Winter climbing is a strange game.
We started out on Tuesday with Curved Ridge. This was actually lovely and we had some nice views. The ridge was well covered in snow and the wind was not as strong as forecast. The temperature did rise to above the summits though so we got pretty wet on the way down. We were talking about avalanches, snow transportation and signs you can see as you go along. The sastrugi you can see in the picture above are the lines formed by the wind scouring away snow and putting it down somewhere else. This is an indicator that this particular slope is more becoming more stable.
Yesterday we drove over to Glen Shiel where we climbed the Forcan Ridge. This spectacular, long ridge is a fantastic expedition that goes over a few tops before arriving on The Saddle. We moved together in alpine style for the whole climb, placing protection in the form of slings on blocks and through threads, and weaving around blocks on the ridge to act as anchors on the rope for us. There is also a cool little abseil that adds a bit of spice. Gusty winds and fast moving showers and clouds made it very atmospheric.
Today we went up Ben Nevis for another soaking. We climbed The SW Ridge of Douglas Boulder to nudge the technical level a bit higher and try out climbing with two ice axes. It was pretty well buried in snow so we didn't see many of the hooks that we pulled on, but we got an idea of mixed climbing. Ben Nevis above the CIC Hut is a very white place right now. Lots of snow has built up over the last few days with the freezing level going up and down a bit to lock the snow in place. An icy crust on the snow gave us the confidence that the snow we were on was not going to avalanche and the descent down East Gully of Douglas Gap was wind blown so little of the fresh snow that fell during the day had collected there.
If you want to go climbing at the weekend, you should be a bit cautious with the snow. Avoid the gullies and stick to ridges and buttresses would be good advice. There is a lot of snow in the gullies and we saw one avalanche today and the debris of a second. The snow will take a while to transform into good ice for climbing on. There is still some ice around - Vanishing Gully looked fully formed, but it is hard to tell when there is so much snow on top of the ice, and this is where we saw an avalanche come down!
The buttresses are very white with rime and snow so if you choose a crag that faces the wind (where most of the snow has been blown off) you will find some good climbing. Turf is frozen above 1000m. Tower Ridge would be a bit of a wade digging a trench through the snow, so try and go second and let someone else enjoy the hard work!
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.
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!
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.
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!
Looking at the forecast at 5am this morning, I was close to staying at home. Weather warnings for strong winds and rain further south in Scotland stood out, as well as the 60mph wind speed with 70mph gusts on Sgurr Alasdair. This with a weather front arriving at lunchtime with heavy rain and a temperature of only just above freezing. It was not looking good.
Even when I arrived at Sligachan to meet Akshar I could easily have said that it was not worth trying, all things considered. I waited for the heaviest rain to clear and ran in to the hotel to chat about the chances of getting in any climbing at all.
The Cuillin in November are pretty wild. Like the rest of the Highlands in the second half of November strong winds and lots of rain are the norm. So, a forecast like this is not unusual. However, enthusiasm got the better of us and we went for a look. The wind was coming from the SE so we went to The Spur on Sgurr an Fheadain which points NW and is a couple of hundred metres lower than the main Cuillin Ridge. If it was sheltered anywhere it was going to be here.
But if it had been raining in the night the stream would have been impossible to cross high above the Fairy Pools. When we got to the Fairy Pools car park the attendant was keen to show us the forecast and to warn us off going high in the mountains. It was good advice.
But, against all odds, we stayed dry all day and the windiest place was in the car park!
The weather on Skye confuses me much of the time. This year I lost count of the times it was forecast to be dry on the ridge but ended up being in wet cloud with fine drizzle all day. This time, the apocalyptic forecast did not materialise and we had a very nice, dry and comfortable climb up The Spur. We didn't push our luck by going up to Bidean Druim nam Ramh, but I was tempted.
So Akshar got a perfect introduction to The Cuillin. We spent a day soaking up the unique atmosphere of the jagged, dark peaks, got to grips with the gabbro and learned to avoid the basalt and enjoyed a spectacular route (and awkward boulder strewn descent). Most importantly, Akshar now knows that the weather forecasts on Skye don't always work out as expected.
This was first posted in February 2021 but it's exactly the same now.
While I was out for a walk recently I was talking about how helpless I feel about being able to do something about our impact on the planet. I feel like I can't do anything meaningful to help reverse human impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, plastic waste and extreme weather events. Our climate emergency seems like such a huge problem it is difficult to see how anything I can do on a personal level will change anything. Why do I bother trying to recycle plastic when there are huge floating islands of it in the oceans and when supermarkets are increasing their plastic usage, not decreasing it. It seems like all the power to change things for the better lies with big corporations and governments. What difference can I make against such a massive problem?
With COP27 in full swing and dire warnings (again) about our lack of action to tackle the climate crisis, it's hard to know what to do that will make any difference. But, there are things we can do, and we should do everything we can, even if it is just to say to ourselves, honestly, that we tried.
First of all, let's talk about it. Make it normal to talk about issues of climate change, pollution and our impact on the planet, as well as ideas of what we can do to help turn the tide. It is a big and scary subject and it is easy to fall into very depressing conversations about the most recent evidence of our destruction of the environment. So, let's talk about what we can do, share ideas and knowledge, make it normal to want to become sustainable as a population, and as individuals. One person's effort is tiny in the big scheme of things, but when everyone makes the same effort the change is huge.
Connect with nature. Not just a walk in the woods on a Sunday afternoon listening to a podcast. I mean make a real connection with nature. Doing stuff in nature like biking and climbing is very good but still might not create a real connection. Slow down, look at the details, study how they change through time, note when the snowdrops burst up through the ground, when the daffodils bloom, how many bees you see. Even in an urban setting, there are trees to become friends with, "weeds" (AKA wild flowers) that grow in the most unlikely places pushing their way through tarmac and cracks in the concrete. Learn about habitats, land usage and management. Ideally, grow stuff. Growing your own vegetables is a fantastic way to create a real connection with nature and has the additional benefit of reducing food miles. You can grow herbs on a windowsill, tomatoes on a balcony, potatoes in bags. You don't need very much space at all, but if you do have some garden space make the most of it. The value of garden and green spaces has been highlighted through lockdown so let's maintain that and nurture them.
The impact of global climate change and our impact on the planet is seen through nature and our open spaces, as well as changes in weather, especially in extreme weather events. To be able to see these changes and feel how they might impact us on a personal level, we need to have a personal connection with nature and our landscape. It's not surprising that we, as a population, have become completely disconnected with nature when modern lives deliver everything we need and everything we want at a touch of a screen. It's natural to want to make lives easier for us, but ultimately it is not healthy. Our disconnect with nature is a fundamental problem that needs to be tackled.
Change banks. Many mainstream banks continue to invest in unsustainable industries such as oil and coal. Barclays and HSBC have collectively invested over £149 billion in coal, gas, oil, tar sands and fracking since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015, making them the 7th and 12th worst banks in the world respectively, and the two worst in Europe, for financing climate change. By moving our banking to an ethical bank, and writing to tell the banks why we are moving, we can demonstrate what our priorities are and change what investment there is available for different industries. Once you have changed banks (with a seven day switch guarantee) there is little or no impact on you other than knowing that your savings are being put to good use. Have a look at bankonourfuture.org/
Change electricity supplier. Do some research and change your provider to one that generates power from renewable and green sources instead of coal or gas fired power stations. Again, once you have done it, there is little or no impact on you afterwards. You need to do some research though. The best providers are actively investing and building renewable power generation infrastructure while others offer very green looking tariffs which offset their carbon production by planting trees. Planting trees is a good thing but there have been many problems with big carbon offset schemes and ultimately we need more renewable generation infrastructure. Have a look here as a start - https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/advice/switching-your-energy-supplier/
Stop wasting food. Each year, one third of food produced in the world goes to waste, and it is responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is a stunning statistic and one that horrifies me and puzzles me in equal measure. In my house, we buy what we need and eat it all. There is very little food waste at all, and the peelings and food scraps we do get rid of go into a compost bin and into the vegetable patch. Reducing how much food we waste would have a huge impact on the greenhouse gas emissions we are each responsible for. Research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organizaton of the United Nations from 2013 estimates that if food waste was a country, then it would be the third highest emitter of GHG emissions. Each year, we waste 1.3 gigatons of edible food and this releases 3.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (without taking into account land use change). Buy what you need and make use of produce about to be thrown out if you can. Try this - https://toogoodtogo.org/en/
Eat less meat and be happy to pay more for good quality, locally sourced meat. Check where your fruit and vegetables come from to eat produce grown closer to home, and eat fruit and vegetables that are in season. In Fort William we are lucky enough to be able to buy venison from Jahama Highland Estates and all sorts of produce from local crofts through Food Lochaber. Do some research, you might have similar producers near you - https://www.farminguk.com/ - but remember that local doesn't always mean better. It's hard enough trying to work out what to eat to stay healthy, never mind trying to work out what to eat to keep the planet healthy. Soil is currently being destroyed 10 times faster than it is being created. The UK has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850, with the erosion continuing at a rate of 1cm to 3cm a year. It's a huge subject and there are no single, straightforward answers. If you want to learn (a huge amount) about it have a look at the Sustainable Food Trust. ‘Kiss the Ground’, currently streaming on Netflix, has huge relevance for the massive environmental and health problems we face today and gives a nicely balanced view on food production. It's a really engaging film, easy to watch, and is highly recommended.
Hire kit and don't fall victim to fashion. If you ski for a week or two each year, do you really need to own a full set of ski gear? Would that cupboard in your house be more useful to you if it didn't have all that stuff in it doing nothing for 50 weeks of the year? It's the same with winter climbing gear. It also makes a lot of sense to travel with fewer bags and kit. And just think about whether we actually need a new jacket in this year's colours when last year's jacket is still working well. https://www.scottishmountainhire.co.uk/
These are all pretty easy things to do that have little impact on your daily life. You can be an eco-warrior without having to look like one! But that's the point, isn't it? We all have to do our bit, it's mainstream, it's normal. Doing something to help the human race live sustainably on this planet is something we all need to do. We can't rely on other people to do it for us. We all need to do our bit.
During last week we had a lot of rain. The intensity of the rain peaked at about midnight on Thursday night into Friday morning. There was 67.6mm of rain on Thursday 6th October and in total there was 159.8mm over the four days Monday to Thursday. In one hour (11pm Thursday 6th to midnight) there was 26.2mm of rainfall recorded in Glen Nevis. This is quite a lot, even for Lochaber standards! All of this data is available on the SEPA website here - https://www2.sepa.org.uk/rainfall//data/index/115343
As a result there was a landslide on Ben Nevis which didn't hurt anyone but has resulted in a significant area of ground sliding down into the Red Burn. The slide is easily seen from the mountain path below windy corner. It started on the slope underneath the shortcut path between windy corner and the Red Burn crossing point.
This shortcut path has been used more and more over the last couple of years since the signs asking people not to have been removed. On the way down, the shortcut looks significantly shorter (and it is) and enticing to people who just want to get down off the mountain. For most people though, it does not work out well. The shortcut takes longer and crosses very loose, rough and boggy ground. It is easier, quicker and nicer to walk around on the main path.
However, we do not know whether erosion on the shortcut path has increased the chance of landslides below it, or whether this would have happened anyway due to the intensity of the rain. Of course, it could be that both these factors combined to make the landslide occur. Either way, we will need to get some experts up there to work this out.
One thing is for sure though, we have a very well built path that avoids this area, on which we will not increase the chance of erosion at all, a path that we spent £900,000 on recently (through Nevis Landscape Partnership) that is easier and quicker to walk down and gives better views of the upper part of the mountain. It makes no sense to walk down on the shortcut, so please share this message to anyone who is heading up that way. It is easy enough to reach the people that already know this, but hard to reach the one-time walkers.
It looks like similar slides have happened in the past, and if you know of any specific events I'd like to hear about them. There are a few patches of ground where it looks like a slide has occurred and vegetation has grown back over the area.
We were very worried that this would happen on the Grassy Bank that used to be taken by runners in the Ben Nevis Race. This is the steep ground on the other side of the Red Burn. Runners were asked not to use the Grassy Bank by the Ben Nevis Race committee and Nevis Landscape partnership and very few runners have used it since. This total shift in use has allowed vegetation to grow back in this area and it seems to be holding up well. There was no landslide on that side last week.
It is clear that more intense weather events will happen as a result of climate change. Heavier falls of rain are one of these things, so we might need to get used to this kind of thing happening more often unless we radically change our behaviour as a worldwide population to something that is sustainable on this planet.
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.