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!
Dry on Skye.
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.
Landslide on Ben Nevis.
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.
Women's Winter Weekends.
The Scottish Highlands in winter can be wild and intimidating, but they can also be awe-inspiring and beautiful. With the right skills and knowledge, you can make these mountains your playground throughout the winter months.
Our Women's Winter Weekends offer a chance to gain new experiences, new skills and to push yourself physically or mentally, in a safe and supportive environment.
Sat 14th - Sun 15th January 2023
Sat 11th - Sun 12th February 2023
You can join our female instructors along with other like minded ladies for two fun and inspiring days in the Scottish winter mountains. Regardless of your prior experience there is a course for you. Winter Hill Walking Skills will give you core walking skills if you are new to everything wintry, Intro to Winter Climbing is for women who want to learn the ropes for simple winter climbing, and Winter Climbing Progression is for women who already do some climbing who want to push through to grade III and IV climbs.
We want to create a fun and supportive environment where women of all abilities can learn skills, make friends and go away feeling inspired, motivated and with the confidence to do more. Perhaps you will be the one introducing your friends and family to the winter mountains in the future!
Adventure sports are typically very male dominated and this can be off putting for some women to get involved, but there is no reason why women can't get out and enjoy the mountains just as much as the guys do.
Last winter we joined forces with Girls on Hills to run our first Women's Winter Festival. After a big Covid shaped spanner was thrown into our plans to launch the event in 2021 it was absolutely fantastic to get the festival going this year, and to have so many keen and capable women join us for the various events.
Over the two days, courses run by Girls on Hills and ourselves will include:
Winter Trail Running
Navigation Skills Refresher - Be Winter Ready
Winter Hill Walking Skills
Intro to Winter Climbing
Winter Climbing Progression
Plus we will have inspirational speakers in the evenings, and time for everyone to come together to share their experiences and learn from each other.
Look out for the Women's Winter Festival - 10th to 12th March 2023
It's crap on Ben Nevis.
This title doesn't mean that climbing Ben Nevis is not a good experience, it refers to the amount of crap that we walkers and climbers leave behind on the mountain. We need to have a matter of fact conversation about our impact. This blog will talk plainly about pee and poo, and it's past time that we all became a bit more comfortable talking about these things in order that we can lessen the mess we leave behind.
The situation is so severe that Jahama Highland Estates has formally reported the huge amounts of human excrement on Ben Nevis to SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency). I have been faced with a pile of poo in the middle of the path complete with toilet paper poking out of the top.
I have just spent a few days at Lochan Meall an t'Suidhe which is one of the few areas where people can find a little shelter from the wind and viewers on the path. Inevitably there was a lot of toilet paper, poo and tampons as well as three pairs of boxers and two odd socks. I was working with the Green Space Dark Skies project, a large scale arts and technology project which took around 250 people halfway up Ben Nevis for some filming. With such a large number of people all at the same location for a few hours, the production team installed temporary toilets for everyone to use. This resulted in all the pee and all the poo being carried back down to be disposed of properly.
Ben Nevis enjoys around 150,000 people walking up it each year. For this reason it is quite different to other mountains, and our impacts are much more focused. The advice from Mountaineering Scotland is excellent and, as they say, in very busy places like Ben Nevis we need to carry out all our poo. Even if everyone buried their poo and took down their toilet paper, the impact would be too great. Especially on the summit where there is no vegetation or mud to carry bacteria to digest and decompose everything.
Instead, we will need to get used to the idea of carrying down poo, toilet paper, tampons and anything else that we normally dispose of in the bathroom at home. Without a toilet to flush things away and without bins to drop rubbish into we need to do things differently. But, once we have got over the thought of it, it's actually quite easy to do.
This is what Green Space Dark Skies did this weekend. They had lots of Wag Bags which are basically plastic bags with some grains of something in them that absorbs fluids and starts to biodegrade anything you put in to them. You can squat over them or hang them in a bucket with a seat. After you are done, just tie a knot in the bag, seal it in the zip lock bag provided and drop it into a regular bin once you are back in the car park. They are good to go straight into landfill. The plastic bags are biodegradable and you even get toilet paper and antiseptic wipes in the kit.
The main problem with this system is the thought of carrying your poo in your rucksack for the rest of the day. Here's my advice - get over it. It's only poo, we all produce it and all parents and dog owners get pretty adept at cleaning it up and wrapping it in a secure little package.
For this event, we also collected as much pee as we could. This was much more simple - a jerry can and an enormous funnel! Normally pee is not a big problem, and full credit must go to Green Space Dark Skies for taking this down as well. If you want to put it on your compost heap it works wonders by the way! Going for a pee does not have the same problems as going for a poo. But, we should take down any toilet paper we use. To do this, carry a ziplock bag or a dog poo bag or a nappy bag. It's a tiny bit of preparation but it will make a huge difference to everyone else if you can take down your paper.
It's the same with sanitary products such as tampons, sanitary towels, nappies and incontinence pads. We can not leave them on the mountain side, we need to take them down in our rucksacks stored safely in a tough plastic bag. So, carry a couple of plastic bags, it's really very easy to do, and we are all very used to carrying little bottles of alcohol gel to clean our hands afterwards.
The Ben Nevis Visitor Centre stocks Wag Bags (or similar) so they are easily available for Ben Nevis.
So, this is what all Abacus Mountain Guides will have with them, and I encourage all leaders and guides working in busy areas such as Ben Nevis to carry Wag Bags or something similar, as well as regular walkers and climbers. Our right of access is dependent on us behaving responsibly and this is one part of the responsible behaviour that is required of us.
Today I picked up all the toilet paper, soiled boxers, tampons and any other rubbish that I could find at the south end of Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe. The Real Three Peaks Challenge will get to grips with Poo Rock just down from John's Wall not far away as well as lifting as much rubbish as they can in one day. Last year they picked up over 100kg of rubbish and carried it down! So if you are able to help this is a very good event to support. Also, John Muir Trust organises regular litter picks and they are always very happy to see new volunteers.
As a final anecdote, don't do what I did once, learn from my mistake. I went around the CMD Arete with Victor, my springer spaniel, and picked up after him quite early on into the walk. I double bagged the poo in dog poo bags and put it into my rucksack. Of course, CMD Arete is a long day out and by the time I got home I had forgotten about the bag in my rucksack. So I forgot to take it out. After three days in my bag in my shed it was quite aromatic. I'd go as far as to say that it was pungent! Remember to clean out your rucksack properly.
A stellar climb with Rob Brown.
Arriving with Rob Brown on the summit into brilliant sunshine, we were slightly overwhelmed by such an immaculate day. This was an unexpected gift, a random act of kindness, and was all the more memorable and meaningful. Nobody else was on the North Face of Ben Nevis, in perfect weather above a layer of clouds in the glens. For a lucky few local residents, the covid lockdown had its benefits, and we had just shared a precious gift.
A few hours earlier, on the walk in by the Allt a’Mhuilinn we were not sure what to expect, what the ice would be like, what we would climb. Our uncertainty took us towards a regular ascent of Orion Direct instead of something more exotic. But it became increasingly obvious as we climbed higher up the face that the ice was pretty much perfect and the most ephemeral routes were there to be climbed.
The Orion Face on Ben Nevis is the home of the biggest and best ice climbing in the country. Orion Direct was the first and is the ultimate classic route up the face, first climbed in 1960 by Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith. This was just one of their incredible climbs completed in a seven day period, the pinnacle of the step cutting era.
By modern standards, the technical difficulty is low, but any ascent is always a serious undertaking. Protection is often spaced and consecutive ice screw belays are always required. The route is long and does not follow a natural line, so route finding is difficult. For most people, an ascent of Orion Direct is a lifetime ambition, and quite rightly so. But it is not the only route up the face.
The stellar theme is maintained in the names of other climbs; Astral Highway, Journey Into Space, Space Invaders, Spacewalk. Many routes now wind their way up the face which, at its best, is covered in squeaky snow-ice, the ultimate in thin face ice climbing. The question is, what is the best way up the face?
Here is my suggestion. Climb Orion Direct for four pitches into The Basin and to the crux traverse out onto the upper face. This is at the foot of the Second Slab Rib which is one of the few rock features on the face that is recognisable, even with a very good covering of snow and ice. It is climbed by the summer rock route, The Long Climb, and occasionally holds enough ice on the slab to climb. This is a sensational pitch and you should take the opportunity to climb it if you are in the right place at the right time. Rob and I found ourselves in exactly this position in February 2021.
Rob was an excellent ice climber and his bling gold axes were swung with a casual style and great precision. Many people would be quite self-conscious with a pair of such spectacular tools, but Rob favoured super bright clothing combinations which always made a bold statement. Bling gold axes were the perfect way for him to accessorise his look.
Thin, silky smooth ice cased the slab of The Second Slab Rib. It was a shame to take something as harsh as an ice axe to something as clean and pure as the ice on the slab. Standing on monopoints on transparent, flawless ice was quite a feeling, 200m up the face, but knowing that Rob was holding my ropes and that we could swing leads all day gave me an extra boost of confidence. Rob led another long pitch that carried on up beautiful grooves and ice bulges, heading for the deep blue sky.
The way ahead is obvious, but daunting. A clean slab of snow-ice leading off to the horizon requires a steady approach and a conviction that it will lead to somewhere friendly. Where it leads to is the last pitch of Spacewalk, a steep shallow groove of fat ice right at the top of Orion Face. Spectacular climbing in a sensational position to finish a direct line up the biggest and best ice climbing face in the country.
Rob died in a climbing accident recently. He was one of the nicest guys I've met and it was a privilege to climb and work with him. This was one of the best days of climbing I have ever had, we were both totally stunned by the brilliance of the day, and I'm so glad I got to share it with Rob.
Even after 27 years of climbing rock in this area there are very many excellent climbs I have not done. So when I get the chance I try to make the most of it to go to search out some climbs that are new to me. Dave and I have climbed together a few times, including a Sea Stacks trip, a Cuillin Traverse (in the wet) and some Winter Climbing. He has also done lots of climbing in the Alps. So when we got a good weather forecast for this week I started to think of what we could do that would be new to us both.
We started with some Classic Rock routes in Glen Coe. The Long Crack and Archer Ridge are both fantastic climbs that link well together. Weeping Wall was living up to its name though and The Long Crack was pretty wet. Since we were up high already we carried on up to Church Door Buttress, along a really cool path over the west face cliffs of Aonach Dubh and up some pretty horrible scree.
Deep inside this buttress is Crypt Route, a rock climb unlike any other. It is much more like uphill caving than climbing, especially when it is wet and slimy! Head torches are essential to find your way in the darkest tunnels and chambers and don't wear your favourite bright climbing clothes, they will never be the same again. We emerged onto the arch to find the clouds and drizzle were lower than before so we udged up the final chimney groove to the top, thoroughly worked.
It was nice to see the crags of Ben Nevis drying out in the sunshine on Wednesday. The Long Climb takes a good couple of weeks to get dry (if it is ever completely dry) so we ruled this one out. Instead we went for Strident Edge on South Trident Buttress, a fantastic high mountain VS 4c with everything it a mountain rock climb should have including slimy cracks, a little loose rock and awesome exposure.
Andy joined us for this one and we climbed the beautiful ridge all the way to Carn Dearg before going along to descend Ledge Route. This was such a cool mountain day, a great circuit up South Trident Buttress with the views right across the North Face to a great summit, then down another great ridge, all in the sunshine
Today it stayed a bit cloudy in the west and we were in search of more Classic Rock. So we went to Coire an Lochain in The Cairngorms, along with a few other teams as it turned out. We planned on climbing Savage Slit and Fallout Corner (that I had not climbed in summer) but another team was already on Savage Slit and a team behind us decided to go for Fallout Corner. So we climbed Prore in the sunshine, between these two other routes.
Prore (VS 4c) does not get as many stars as the other climbs here but it is sensational. Prore is an obsolete term for the prow of a ship, and once you are established on the route you feel as exposed to the drop as you would be on any big boat. Beautiful, rough granite and delicate moves make this a route to savour.
We abseiled down and slotted in behind the team in Fallout Corner, which is a lot of fun. It is showing plenty of signs of many winter ascents, including a few bits of stuck protection. It also has slightly more positive breaks and cracks so the climbing is steady away and very well protected. Such a striking line draws your attention and it is a very nice climb.
It's easy to get over to the abseil point as well - in fact there are abseil anchors all over the top of this cliff. It would be well worth going there to tidy it all up. We took away some of it like we did yesterday on Ben Nevis. We all need to make an effort to tidy up when we can.
Of course the most striking line is Savage Slit. This isn't just a chimney, this is a slit that passes right through the mountain and out the other side. While the breeze rising up the cliff on the outside is warm, the draft coming out of the slit is cold and dank. Savage Slit is probably connected to Crypt Route deep under the ground.
Thankfully, you can climb the outside of the slit and avoid its powerful embrace. If you do step into it, it will not let you go easily. Bridge up the outside and look into the deep dark depths but don't be tempted to dive in too far.
Tomorrow we will stay in the west in search of exciting new ground for us both. We have our eyes on the big herdsman, where the ravens haunt the deep gullies.
Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête.
CMD Arete, or Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête to give it it's full title, is one of the finest ridge walks in the country.
The route we take starts at the North Face car park and follows the path towards the CIC Hut for a little way before breaking away up the flanks of Càrn Mòr Dearg. The views for this first half of the day are simply breath-taking as we look across to the immense crags of the North Face of Ben Nevis.
For keen hill walkers who want a bit of extra challenge in their day and to bag an extra Munro along the way, this is one to go for. It adds an extra hour or two to the day, a couple hundred extra metres of ascent, as well as some delightfully exposed walking and easy scrambling. It's not for novices, but if you're looking for a more challenging walk up Ben Nevis, this is the one for you.
Càrn Mòr Dearg translates to big red pile of rocks. It sounds a lot better in Gaelic! Càrn is a cairn or a pile of rocks, Mòr is big and Dearg is red. Have a listen to the sound file on Walkhighlands to learn how to pronounce it properly. When you look across from Ben Nevis it really is very clearly red and rocky. The granite that the rocks are composed of is beautifully red and fine grained, making it a delight to walk over. It stays clean and grippy, there is very little moss and not very much lichen, so it makes for fantastic walking. Once you have completed the narrow sections of the ridge at the head of Coire Leis and the ridge broadens out, you cross from granite to the black andesite of Ben Nevis.
From the summit of Càrn Mòr Dearg we descend onto the arete and scramble our way across until we are on Ben Nevis itself. The scrambling consists of moving around and over big blocks of granite. It is always quite simple but it certainly requires good balance, the use of hands and arms to help you around the blocks, and always with long steep slopes dropping away on both sides. A good head for heights is useful, or the ability to block out the view down the sides of the ridge! It is certainly not simple walking, but it is very far from rock climbing. Scrambling is what we call the stuff between walking and climbing and this is simple scrambling.
Today was a pretty good day for a traverse of CMD Arete. It was dry and clear on Càrn Mòr Dearg, and just a bit misty on the summit of Ben Nevis. Hannah and Terry got a nice early start and got around to Ben Nevis smoothly and efficiently. John and Will did the same not long afterwards, with camping gear for Will to spend the night up next to the Allt a'Mhuilinn to relax afterwards. The descent follows the top half of the Mountain Track then cuts across country past Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe to re-join the original path back to the car park.
So, if you want to see the most spectacular side of Ben Nevis and enjoy an extra challenge to reach the summit, go for Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête. It is easily one of the finest ridges in the country.
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.