Ten years ago this guidebook came out. It was passed on to me by Alan Kimber who edited three editions of it. Before that it was edited by Ed Grindley, Hamish MacInnes and written initially by Ian Clough in 1969. This is quite a list of people to be associated with and it is a great privilege to have this opportunity. I am very grateful indeed to Alan Kimber for passing it on to me and I hope to do as good a job as previous authors.
The intention with the next edition is to help people decide what climb to go for given the weather and climbing conditions at the time. I remember starting out winter climbing and looking at the book with no idea about the differences in mixed climbs and ice climbs, what weather patterns were required to form any particular type of climb, and what style of climbing each route involved. It was all a bit hit and miss, with lots of misses!
I hear of people still having to go through the same process despite the huge amount of information available to everyone now. When they tell me about their climbing and the days that it did not go well, I often think that the main problem was that their choice of climb was not the best one for that day. If climbers know when rime will form and when the crags will be white and frozen for mixed climbing; and if climbers know when and why Green Gully will be formed but not Mega Route X yet, they will be able to make better decisions about what route to try and have more successful climbing trips.
What this means is building on what I started in the last book with a long section describing all the different types of climb and what each one takes to form, the influence of the weather and how that forms or strips away the conditions we are after. I am trying to let people know what type of climb each one is; that Diana is a thin face ice climb which you would not expect to see formed up until later in the winter; that Mega Route X requires snow above the climb to be present to provide water in the thaws to then freeze on the climb in the cold spells; that Blue Riband just needs a sustained cold spell to form ice and no snow is required at all. All this means that I am slowly working through every climb in the book, spending a lot of time in front of a screen, dreaming about all these wonderful climbs!
It's a nice autumn project, something to get stuck into while we wait for the winter to get going. A wet autumn can be very good for the formation of ice later on. We need water to drip out of the cracks and springs to form the ice when it gets cold. We also need the ground to cool down properly after our long hot summer, and before the snow arrives. We will need to wait and see if we get the perfect mix of weather to generate great winter climbing.
It used to be that October and November were very quiet months in the guiding calendar. It is often not great for rock climbing, being a bit too wet and cold for bare fingers. It is before the snow arrives properly apart from a few flurries and brief spells of freeze on the summits. But, there are still great things to do in the mountains here and, if you put up with some less than comfortable conditions, the landscape is in its finest autumn colours and is absolutely spectacular.
Mark came to walk up Ben Nevis and, as it turned out, he got a nice day to do it. Craig took him up from Glen Nevis and they found snow and rime on the rocks at the summit. The snow was just for decoration and certainly didn't cause any difficulties for the guys, they were well prepared and wrapped up for the cold.
Sally came up for some more rock climbing with Caspar. As I found out with John last year, being mobile and flexible is key to success. The guys travelled between Ben Nevis, Ardnamurchan and Kingussie to find reasonable rock climbing conditions, and they did find dry rock and sunshine as well. Climbing on the Ring Dyke crags at Ardmurchan is a must for any rock climber, and doing it in the autumn with stags roaring and the ground looking like it's on fire with its red and orange colours is a unique experience.
Meanwhile, Sally and I have been busy running our last Summer Mountain Leader Courses with an assessment last week, and the last one in progress this week. We've seen a huge increase in interest in these course and we have run a record number for us, nine in total between training and assessment courses. We love to work on these and help new people find their way into the outdoor industry and it is looking like we will have another busy year in 2022.
The team had a very chilly night last night, and face another one tonight before they walk out of the hills after their three day expedition. The signs are there that the temperature is dropping and winter is coming. It's time to wrap up any thought of rock climbing and summer mountain walking. It's time for winter.
Right now the summit temperature is about -5C and we have snow falling above 800m or so. It's a wee cold snap and it will melt away very soon. However, it's a good reminder that winter is coming and we should start to get our heads into winter mode. #ThinkWinter
Avalanche education forms part of our daily lives as mountain guides and mountaineering instructors. If you come on a winter course or trip with us we will work through these decisions together.
In Scotland, we are super lucky to have the Scottish Avalanche Information Service giving us detailed information on snow conditions and the avalanche hazard. SAIS is funded by Sport Scotland which itself is a Scottish Government funded organisation. The Scottish Government considers this to be an essential service for walkers, climbers and skiers. The people delivering the service are incredibly experienced and highly trained observers and the way the reports are presented is world class. The forecasts will start to come out in about 6 weeks or when it starts to snow properly. We have an amazing resource here, make sure you know how to use it properly.
We need to build a picture of the snow cover and its history. Start by reading the Weekly Snowpack Summary, top right of the page. This describes the previous week's weather and what happened to the snow. It will give some background to what to expect on your day out, where the snow is, how the weather has changed it, and what hazard there is in general.
Have a look at the blog posts. On the right of the page, under the Weekly Snowpack Summary, you'll find the last few blog posts rom SAIS observers. These have photos taken while they were out working as well all sorts of points of interest. A photo of where you are going, or somewhere close to it, is really valuable so you know what to expect when you get there.
With a bit of an idea of what snow cover there is and its history, we now need more detail. You'll get this in the Observed Avalanched Hazard tab to the right of the Avalanche Hazard Forecast. This is exactly what it says, observed avalanche hazard, i.e. actual data not a forecast. The forecasters go to lots of different places on their day out, making observations of the snow and checking the hazard. This is observed data, the detailed starting point on which the forecast is based. It is occasionally different to what was forecast the day before.
Lastly, read the forecast. Read the text and take time to read the details on the avalanche hazard rose. Check the altitudes of the start of the snowpack and where the higher hazard is, as well as what the hazard level is.
So, what does it say? The avalanche hazard rose (AKA the wheel of fortune or the avalanche piechart) tells us where the hazard is and what level of hazard it is. Each aspect of the mountain is represented at different altitudes all the way up to the highest peak in the area of the forecast. You can work out which aspects of slope have less avalanche hazard and stick to those. You need to know what the hazard level is in each area too.
The avalanche hazard scale is available to see by clicking just above the avalanche hazard rose. Take time to read the descriptions carefully and really understand what each level is. The words have been very carefully chosen and developed to give us the information we need in a practical, usable way. The hazard levels described by "Low", "Moderate", "Considerable" and "High" are very specific levels, not just vague adjectives.
The descriptions talk about natural avalanches and human triggered avalanches. Natural avalanches are started by a natural trigger such as a rise in temperature or rapid accumulation of snow. Natural avalanches can be triggered above you and sweep down onto you. Large natural avalanches can travel below the area marked on the avalanche forecast rose. It is important to take notice of avalanche paths in case you are in a run-out zone when a natural avalanche occurs. You might be on relatively secure slopes but what is above you might not be secure.
Human triggered avalanches are what normally catch people out though. Most people trigger the avalanche that they get caught in. Triggering of an avalanche will occur if the slope is steep enough and if there is enough extra weight on the snow to act as a trigger.
In a Moderate hazard, human triggering is possible, but not likely. It's reasonable to cross these slopes with some care.
In a Considerable hazard, a single person load is likely to trigger an avalanche. Would you cross the road if you were likely to be hit by a car? Probably not, so don't go walking across steep slopes of this hazard level. Natural avalanches may occur, but are not likely.
A High avalanche hazard says naturally occurring avalanches and human triggered avalanches will occur and they could be large or very large. Don't go near the red areas!
How steep is steep enough? Anything more than 25° can avalanche, but the most likely angle for an avalanche is about 30° to 45°. Knowing how steep a slope is, is a useful skill to develop. You can start by using a clinometer on your phone or compass, or the tool in the Be Avalanche Aware app from SAIS.
It's time to start looking at a map. We need to transcribe the information on the avalanche hazard rose to the slopes we see on the map. We need to look at the contour lines and work out the aspect of slope and its gradient.
If you want an easy way to do this, use Fat Map. You can add a layer to the satellite image to show areas above a particular altitude, on particular aspects and gradients. In the image above I have selected SW, W, NW and N facing slopes above 700m and steeper than 25°. The green shaded areas in the image relate to the areas of considerable avalanche hazard in the forecast above.
You can do the same by looking at the contour lines. The easiest thing to do is work out areas above a certain altitude by finding that contour line. If you stay below this altitude and away from run-out zones, you will be pretty secure.
The aspect of slope can be determined by considering a line perpendicular (at right angles) to the contour lines, pointing down the slope. See the image below.
We can also work out the gradient of a slope from the contour lines. On an OS map, the index contour lines (the thick ones) are 50m apart vertically. 50m horizontally on a 1:25k map is 2mm. So if the index contour lines are 2mm apart, the slope is 45°. If the index contour lines are 4mm apart, the slope is just under 30° (26.6° to be exact). I'll spare you the trigonometry!
Looking at the forecast above, a good route to choose might be Castle Ridge on Ben Nevis. It faces east and the forecast says that east facing slopes at all altitudes will have a low avalanche hazard because the wind has scoured off all the soft snow. So far, so good.
Now think about how to get down. The common descent is down towards Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe. The picture above shows that this slope faces north west and the top of the climb is at 1050m. NW slopes at 1050m have a considerable avalanche hazard forecast for them all the way down to 700m. So, if this slope is steep enough, it is one to avoid.
The pictures below show how steep it is. Between the 1000m contour and 950m contour the gap is just over 2mm. So the slope here is close to 45°. If you want to be super accurate, the gap is 2.5mm on the map which is 62.5m in real life. Doing the trigonometry gives a slope angle of 38.7°, just about perfect for triggering avalanches).
Down at 800m to 750m the gap between index contours is 4mm making the slope angle just under 30° here, still of concern and to be avoided.
So, descending this slope after climbing Castle Ridge is not a good option at the moment. It might be better to go over to the top of Carn Dearg, past Number Four Gully and down the Mountain Track since the slope angle is less all the way down here, the slope stays below 30° under the track all the way to the Red Burn crossing. However, check the gradient of the slopes going from the top of Castle Ridge up to Carn Dearg and decide for yourself if you'd be happy walking up them right now.
So, we can look at the avalanche hazard rose and read which slopes have an avalanche hazard, and how high the hazard is. We can then look at a map and work out what areas on the map to avoid. So, why do we need to read so much on the avalanche forecast instead of just looking at the avalanche hazard rose?
This is because the forecast is just that, a forecast. It is right most of the time, but sometimes it is not accurate because the weather forecast it is based on was not accurate. Sometimes we find an avalanche hazard in a different area or of a different scale to what was forecast and we need to be able to recognise this. If we build up a really good picture of what the snow is like first, we have a much better chance of noticing if the forecast is right or if it is slightly different to what we are seeing.
75% of the decisions we make in a day of mountaineering should be made in advance, based on the weather forecast, the avalanche forecast, our experience and ability level and those of the people we are with. We should think about these things first and choose a route based on them when we are not so easily influenced by what other people are doing or tracks we might see in the snow.
Once we are on the journey, walking in to our objective, we should be observing and checking that what we see is in line with the forecast. Most of the time we will be able to stick to our plan, but about 20% of our decisions will be made based on what we see on the journey. By the time we are at critical decision making moments such as which gully to go up or which descent route to take down, we should be 95% sure of the decision before we get there.
Being able to see is a very valuable thing. In good visibility we can look for signs that the avalanche forecast is accurate and we can see evidence of instabilities. We should be able to recognise areas where snow has been accumulating, and areas where it has been scoured away. A crucial skill is to be able to recognise windslab under our boots and to be able to spot windslab from scoured stable snow ahead of us.
It's nice to be able to see cornices and evidence of recent avalanches, areas of safety and areas threatened from above. If you can't see because you are in the cloud and you don't know the terrain intimately, work on the basis that the avalanche hazard is one higher than the forecast. If it is a Moderate, work on the basis that it is a Considerable, and make decisions appropriately.
Many people get caught out by quite small avalanches, small areas of accumulated snow that are just big enough to avalanche and send people tumbling. Big corries full of snow are easy to see, but small areas of windslab in random locations can catch out anyone. The text on the forecast describes some of these locations. Cross loading of gullies and small slopes occurs when a wind blows snow across a slope allowing gullies in the slope to catch snow in the sheltered side of the gully. The avalanche forecast might say that west facing slopes are secure, but in that west facing slope there will be undulations, bluffs and gullies that can catch small areas of windslab and cause individual areas of avalanche hazard.
Being avalanched in Scotland is not an option. Burials are quite rare but injuries due to tumbles and the trauma caused by hitting rocks are often severe. We have a world class avalanche information service - make sure you use it properly and fully to help make good mountaineering decisions.
We are so looking forward to the winter of 2021/2022. Very few people got to enjoy last winter, so here are some great ways to make sure you get the most out of the coming winter.
Intro Winter Skills £80 1 day
Ben Nevis Winter Ascent £80 1 day
Women's Winter Walking £80 per day
Intro to Winter Climbing £340 3 days
Winter Climbing Progression £300 2 days
Performance Winter Climbing Workshop £260 2 days
Classic Winter Mountaineering £540 5 days
Classic Winter Climbing £800 5 days
Winter Skills Courses and Winter Ascent of Ben Nevis
If your are just starting out in winter an introductory winter skills course will give you the basic skills you need. In a one day course we will cover all core skills such as what to wear and how to wear it, how to use your winter boots and ice axe to aid walking, crampon use, self-arresting a slip with your ice axe, avalanche awareness, navigation and emergency response.
Then you can go on a winter ascent of Ben Nevis We follow the Mountain Track from Glen Nevis and usually meet the snow line around half way up. More often than not it is from this point that crampons and an ice axe are required.
Navigation on Ben Nevis can be incredibly tricky in winter conditions. Not only will we help you to safely reach the summit, but you will also learn how to use your crampons and ice axe correctly, and pick up valuable knowledge on the winter environment.
We understand that for many women, participating in sports and activities is often more about having fun, feeling good, and developing or learning new skills than pushing themselves physically or mentally, or being competitive, and this is why we are introducing our Women's Winter Walking. The main aim will be to go for an enjoyable walk, preferably in winter conditions and hopefully taking in a summit, but we will go wherever the weather and snow conditions allow.
There will be plenty of opportunities to learn new skills and brush up on old ones, so whether you don't yet know what crampons are or already have some winter experience, we would love for you to join us.
The Aonach Eagach. Ledge Route. Curved Ridge. Do you want to take your winter walking to the next level and start tackling classic mountaineering routes like this? An Intro to Winter Climbing course will give you all the skills needed to operate in winter including ice axe and crampon use, avalanche awareness, navigation, basic rope work and emergency response. A three day course is ideal to give you chance to look at the rope work, different snow and rock anchors, then put it all into practice on an appropriate route.
With our Winter Climbing Progression course you can benefit from the experience of our instructors and make the most of every day you get out climbing. Learn new skills or develop those you already have on routes at grade III and above and gain the skills to start tackling these routes on your own.
Our Performance Winter Climbing Workshop will give you expert coaching in ice climbing and dry tooling, followed by the chance to climb a challenging route to put your new skills into practice straight away. We will help you choose the right climb on the right day and to tackle it in the right way.
It can take many years to judge the formation of each different type of climb according to the prevailing weather. Learning from a local guide with many years experience of getting it right (and wrong) will save a few wasted trips!
Guided Winter Climbing Trips
This coming winter we are running Classic Winter Mountaineering weeks on set dates where you can join other like-minded people to enjoy some of the finest single ice axe routes in Scotland. Routes might include Ledge Route, Forcan Ridge, Curved Ridge, Golden Oldie, Sron na Lairig, Dinner Time Buttress, Dorsal Arete.
Have a go at those classic routes you have always wanted to do but never quite managed on a Classic Winter Climbing week. Routes such as Tower Ridge, Crowberry Gully, Green Gully, Number Three Gully Buttress, Raeburn's Route and North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor might be what you get up to in the five days. The ratio for this is two people with one guide and previous climbing experience is essential.
And if you don't see exactly what you are after here, we can organise Guided Winter Climbing on the dates of your choice, on the routes of your choice.
A few years ago Nigel was successfully treated for cancer. For his whole life, he has enjoyed climbing and walking in mountains all the way around the world. Chatting with him is fascinating. Every now and then there's a comment such as "when I was in the Western Cwm on Everest..." or "this is what it was like on Denali" or "when we were aid climbing at Malham we used sack cloth for leg loops to go with our harness belts". Nigel has done a lot of climbing, is incredibly experienced and was determined that a period of illness was not going to stop him.
He was successfully treated for cancer but the treatment itself has left him with some pretty awkward and long lasting side effects. He had to have another bit of surgery this year to help manage these and today's rock climbing in Glen Nevis was an exploration of what is possible for him now. The crags at Poldubh are perfect for this, with dozens of brilliant routes at all grades, easily accessible from the road. We made a tentative start to see what worked and what didn't work; thankfully climbing in a regular sit harness and abseiling like normal were fine. So, we ended up doing a whole selection of multipitch climbs of Difficult and Very Difficult on beautiful dry grippy rock, totalling 15 pitches before the rain came in at 4pm.
Movement on rock outside in the natural environment, taking on challenges and leaving your day to day stresses for a few hours, are such restorative things for us all to do. The more I do, the more I understand this. In addition, it so rewarding for me to be able to help people carry on engaging in these things, despite anything else they are going through in their lives. In fact, it's easy to see that going climbing is even more important because of things they are going through in their lives.
Some days the rock feels grippy, the holds feel bigger than normal and your feet stick to everything. Yesterday, I had a day like this at Ardverikie with Billy. We climbed Ardverikie Wall first, because you have to. It's Scotland's best Hard Severe rock climb, every one of its six pitches being a winner on stunning rock. On the walk down you pass Kubla Khan, so we climbed that as well, another excellent Hard Severe climb that is just about as good as Ardverikie Wall.
Since it was only 2pm, after lunch we went for another climb, one that I have seen many times abseiling off Kubla Khan. It is called The Rubaiyat, a thin slab next to a big overlap graded E1 5b. Everything felt good so we went back up to try this route. The first pitch is a bit lichenous and mossy, but the main pitch up the slab is lovely. There is one thin bit and some long runouts, but there are long runouts on the first two climbs we did as well. and the rock was very grippy, so it all went well.
Billy first came up to climb Tower Ridge in winter a couple of years ago. As it worked out, we had just had a massive fall of snow and more was building up during the day. We decided to give Tower Ridge a go anyway and it turned out to be one of the hardest days I have spent on Ben Nevis! You can read about our Trench Warfare here.
Today, since it was raining, we decided to climb Tower Ridge again in summer conditions (without any snow at least) to be able to compare the two. Of course it was a lot easier and most of it was unrecognisable, but certain key sections really stood out.
In summer, the Eastern Traverse is a nice, wide, easy ledge that you can stroll around. In winter, it is a steeply banked line of snow traversing above a massive drop that feels particularly insecure. Walking across to Tower Gap is a breeze when you can see the flat solid rock under your feet. In winter, with snow up to your thighs in a razor sharp crest, not knowing what you are standing on, it feels quite different. And Tower Gap is a simple step down, step across and back up the other side in summer. In winter, with all the holds covered in snow, and still covered in ice when you have cleared away all the snow, it is a different climb altogether.
So it was really nice to be able to climb Tower Ridge smoothly and swiftly today, despite the slippery, wet conditions. We came back down Ledge Route and we could see across Coire na Ciste to Tower Ridge; the weather was not as bad as it might have been today. We managed to climb between the worst of the rain and low cloud.
Next week we have lower temperatures forecast and the first sign of a little snowfall on the summit of Ben Nevis. This is good news since there is a lot of cooling down to do after a long hot summer, the ground is very warm and it will take several months to get cold enough to freeze properly.
For most of us, climbing, mountaineering and hill walking are all nice ways to spend our free time, ways to stay fit and healthy and to give us a wee boost when we are feeling a bit down or when we need a bit of breathing space. For some people, spending time outdoors, in the mountains, climbing and walking is what keeps them alive. Some people have mental injuries so profound that they struggle to operate in everyday life like the rest of us. Some of these people have found that climbing is a powerful way to manage their symptoms and helps them to function in a relatively normal way.
Last week I spent some time climbing on Skye with a group of guys from Climb 2 Recovery and a group of guides and mountaineering instructors. Set up by wounded veterans for other wounded, injured and sick veterans and service personnel, Climb2Recovery is a charity that offers climbing courses to help with both physical and mental recovery. Much more than that though, through climbing they are building all-important support networks. This trip was supported by Patron Capital Charitable Initiatives and I got to climb with Keith and Aaron from Patron.
Many of the guys have PTSD and a couple of them have physical injuries. We were also joined by a couple of guys who have been presented with the George Cross. The stories of these guys were remarkable, both of their time in service and of its impacts afterwards.
We did a mixture of climbs at Neist where there is amazing single pitch climbing on sea cliffs and on the hillside above, big multi-pitch routes in the mountains, scrambling around the tops, a full traverse and a night spent in Coire Laggan. It was a bit damp on the first day but we had a dry two days in the middle for the full traverse and a few sunny days spent at Neist. In many ways it was just another week of climbing, but for these guys it was described as "transformative" or "life changing".
To me, the positive effect of climbing is no surprise. I have written previously about the idea that the natural environment has profound restorative effects on our wellbeing. “Attention Restoration Theory” tells us that the human experience of the natural world markedly assists in maintaining and fostering a strong sense of subjective wellbeing.
Modern day life in our urban, man-made environments, increases mental fatigue, stress and anxiety. Restoration of feelings of calm, relaxation, revitalisation and refreshment can be achieved by spending time in a natural environment. For it to be most effective, a natural environment should have three critical elements;
Removal from Normal Life
I’ve often said to people, hillwalking and mountaineering are like meditation. We are removed physically and mentally from our everyday lives. We get so involved in the moment, in the activity and its demands on us, that we very often forget all about our normal worries and anxieties. The more we are challenged by the activity, the less cognitive bandwidth we have for anything else. It’s only when we get back home that we remember about the outstanding bills, the anxiety caused by our work or any number of things that cause our mental fatigue.
Fascinating Sensory Elements
It’s really obvious that our mountains are full of astounding visual and sensory elements that are fascinating, beautiful, full of wonder and surprising. Over the last few years I have increased my knowledge of the natural environment massively. It’s also clear to me that there is a never-ending supply of new knowledge to gain, new insights to understand and new things to see. This understanding of the very small things in our landscape makes my enjoyment of the vast scale of the landscape even more rewarding.
It Should Be Expansive
By exploring the mountains that surround us in Scotland we get to feel the immense scale of the landscape, the power of the weather, and the never-ending nature of wildness, that can give us a proper sense of scale. In a blizzard on a summit with numb fingers and an unrelenting wind, when we have to take a bearing on our compass to walk off safely there is nobody else we can turn to, nobody else we can blame if we get it wrong, and no sympathy in the weather or the landscape. It is a good reminder that each of us is not at the centre of things with the world revolving around us. We need to learn some humility and to take responsibility for ourselves. This is surely the expansive nature of the experience that is required to make its restorative effects most profound.
In addition to the restorative effects of attention restoration theory, there is something about control, independence and responsibility that really benefits these guys. Recovering from PTSD as partly about regaining control of your life, something that we get a real sense of when we go climbing. There are few activities in which we are in total control of what we do, how we do it and what the outcome will be. We choose the challenge, focus on it totally and accept the responsibility of the outcome. After all, the outcome is totally dependent on our performace, nothing else. We can't blame the rock or someone else. If we can transfer some of this sense of self-responsibility and its effect of grounding us to our day to day lives, we will be better for it.
For me and the team of guides (Kevin, Hannah, Annie, Caspar and Rob) this was a wonderful trip to be a part of, a trip that had far more profound benefits to the people involved and one that brought home to us all just how basically good mountaineering is for all of us.
Over the weekend Miguel and I completed a Lochaber Traverse. For those of you that might not have heard of it, the Lochaber Traverse is a 32km route that takes in all of the Grey Corries (except Stob Ban), the Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and finishes on Ben Nevis. It includes 7 Munros plus a number of other summits, about 2,800m of ascent and kilometres of stunning ridge walking. Think of it as a far less technical alternative to the Cuillin Traverse! Some people complete the route in one very big day, but Miguel was keen to camp out so we opted to do it over two days.
Mist, midges and mizzly drizzle was the theme for Saturday morning when we met, but the weather forecast was set to improve and most importantly, there wasn't supposed to be too much wind over the two days. Perfect for being up high on, at times, very narrow ridges. We set off in low cloud and were kept moving by midges, but as we climbed higher we could see that the clouds were beginning to break. By the time we reached our first Munro of Stob Choire Claurigh the clouds had lifted enough that we were met with a beautiful view over the rest of the Grey Corries, with Aonach Beag far off in the distance. There was also a slight breeze so fortunately there was to be no more midges for the rest of the trip. The walking along the Grey Corries is just lovely. There are occasional little scrambly bits but for the most of it it is just really pleasant ridge walking. Over Stob Coire an Laoigh and Sgurr Choinnich Mor, before pitching our tents at the bealach between Sgurr Choinnich Beag and Stob Coire Bhealaich with stunning views across to the Mamores.
Waking up to rain on the tents was not ideal, but it stopped just as it was time to emerge. The weather certainly seemed to be on our side! The climb up out of the bealach towards Stob Coire Bhealaich is a tough one, particularly first thing in the morning, but meandering up through the mist and boulders, it didn't seem to take long at all to get up and over the final steep section and we were back on much easier ground. Wandering along the ridge we met a little ptarmigan desperately trying to distract us from her chicks, one of whom we saw scurrying off to hide amongst the rocks. Over Aonach Beag, and upon reaching the bealach the clouds once again began to lift and clear. Miguel really wanted to do the traverse in full so we did the quick out and back to tag Aonach Mor before making the steep descent to the foot of the East Ridge of Carn Mor Dearg.
With nearly 400m to reascend this felt like a big one, but the ridge and the views were distraction enough and we were on the summit of Carn Mor Dearg in time for lunch with only CMD Arete and Ben Nevis left to go. Clouds swirled dramatically around the North Face of Ben Nevis and ravens circled and cawed above as we made our way across the Arete. Scrambling up the final steep boulder field onto Ben Nevis we were serenaded by a snow bunting who seemed to follow us the whole way up, twittering his little song and clearing the clouds for us once again. With weary legs and after an incredible couple of days it seemed like a very fitting way to reach our final summit on the Lochaber Traverse.
Each year for the last few years we have run a Sea Stack Odyssey, a trip to climb the best sea stacks along the west and north coasts of Scotland. It's a trip that gets me super excited every time; my nerves jangle in anticipation, i love the whole experience of the trip, and the deep satisfaction afterwards. It's a big highlight of my year.
This year I was climbing with Barry and Stephen. We had to cancel the trip last year along with a lot of our trips, so Stephen was waiting a long time for this one. Stephen saw Old Man of Stoer one stormy November many years ago and wanted to climb it ever since. Barry found he had a week off at the perfect time and wanted to make sure he got the chance of doing these climbs in between a very busy work schedule. He had tried Old Man of Hoy ten years ago but found it impossible to bring together the weather, a climbing partner, fitness and days off altogether to make a successful trip. The three of us met up at Stoer light house and shared six brilliant days in the far north west of Scotland.
We dived in at the deep end with Old Man of Stoer. It's nice to have a warm up day to get to know each other and get into the climbing before we commit to a sea stack. However, the weather forecast ws looking wet for days 2 and 3, and it seemed like a good idea to make the most of the good weather on day 1. A few other people had made the same decision, and we arrived at Old Man of Stoer to find a tyrolean rope set up already, so no swim was needed. A good start!
We shared the climb with the other teams, happy to take our time. Most people there were from the south of England, a long way away from home. Old Man of Stoer has the best rock, the nicest climbing and fewest birds of all the stacks. It's a very good one to start with and we all got on great. The long and free hanging abseil down went well and we used the tyrolean to get back across again at the bottom. Someone else volunteered to swim after releasing it on the stack side.
We were off to a brilliant start and we drove round to Sheigra to camp, full of high expectations.
Sometimes the sea mist is dry, sometimes it is wet. This time it was classic warm front weather and everything was wet, the clag was in (Cloud Level At Ground) and it was pretty clear that we were not going to be able to climb Am Buachaille. We wanted to have a look though, just to be sure. The cycle in along the path was nice and we had a wee explore of Sandwood Bay beach, a wonderful long stretch of white sand in a very remote place.
Day three was wet too, but we used the time productively to relax, soak up the atmosphere of Sheigra, and to refresh some rope skills such as hoisting people up climbs, escaping out of a belay system when your partner is dangling on the rope and a few other useful things. The rain stopped and the rock dried out later on, enough for us to enjoy a couple of beautiful rock climbs at Sheigra. The rock here is, quite simply, perfect.
Day four is a transition day, a drive, two ferries (one big, one small), a taxi and a short walk to the bothy in Rackwick Bay. We got our first sight of Old Man of Hoy from the big ferry and a brilliant display of diving from the gannets just off the beach.
Having put up with two wet days, we were blessed with a perfect day for climbing Old Man of Hoy. It was warm, calm and the sun came out in the afternoon. We made an early start to make sure we got back to catch the last ferry to Stromness. Being first on the climb meant we climbed quickly and it was clear that we would have plenty of time to enjoy the experience. The scale of this stack is always very impressive. The bottom abseil (of three) is the same height as Old Man of Stoer. The second pitch is the crux and always provides a memorable climb of traditional chimneying and beautiful bridging up the corner above with a massive drop to the boulder beach beneath your feet.
The last pitch to the top is wonderful too. Solid rock with great protection and brilliant moves and positions lands you on the small summit of the stack. It becomes very apparent that the top is actually made of two separate stacks and you climb the corner and gap between the two. Razorbills nesting on the top welcomed us and we were circled by manic puffins nesting on the mainland cliff.
We hung out on top for an hour, to make the moment last for as long as possible and to enjoy the weather on this unique location. Just as rewarding as the climbing, making the abseiling go smoothly with no trapped ropes or stuck prussics is very satisfying. 60m ropes are very useful, well worth taking there just for this last abseil which turns into 50m free hanging straight onto the boulder beach.
We had time to spare before catching the small ferry back to Stromness and a fish and chip supper, back in the world of hostels and cafes, people and facemasks. Going climbing is such a perfect thing to transport you away from all the hastles of every day life, the commitments and obligations, expectations and things you have to put up with. It can be quite a jolt going back to normal life after a good climbing trip, but you always feel mentally refreshed even if you are physically tired.
We took the first ferry back to Scrabster and Stephen and I had time for one more climb. Barry had to make his way all the way back down south and had a very long drive ahead of him. Stephen and I stopped in at Sarclet to climb Sarclet Pimpernel, a wonderful pitch of climbing straight up a lovely arete from a belay hanging just above the sea. It was strange to be on rock with positive edges and hidden pockets after the rounded slopers and three dimensional moves of the sandstone. Beautiful warm weather, guillemots looking for fish and looking at us, and a perfect end to a brilliant sea stacks trip.
I'm off to buy a tide timetable to start planning next year's trip!
Last summer and already this summer we have seen unprecedented numbers of people camping informally, and lots of these people decide to camp close to the road or in popular places. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code does allow for this, but it also recommends that we help to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals and by keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures.
The problems with people camping close to roads include the visual impact, damage to the ground especially through fires and BBQs, and toileting. Many, many reports have been made of laybys and car parks being surrounded by little piles of poo, and even of people quite happily telling other walkers and local residents that they are just off to the beach for a poo. This is not responsible and unnecessary. If we carry on like this we might, eventually, find our access rights changed for the worse.
Of course there are solutions. Lots of local communities are building facilities for visitors to their areas. Nevis Landscape Partnership is building a set of dry composting toilets at the Lower Falls car park in the Autumn, similar facilities will go in to Glen Coe / Glen Etive thanks to the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, and there are already some very nice composting toilets at Traigh near Arisaig.
Use toilets when you can and be prepared to pay a little for them.
Building infrastucture is painfully slow though and many places will not even have this as an option. So, in places where there is a heavy impact from other people we should use poo bags. Those of us with dogs are used to using poo bags to pick up after our pets and those of us with a conscience put the bags in a proper bin afterwards. Different poo bags for humans are also readily available and offer a simple solution for packing out all of our waste and truly leaving no trace.
Check out Popaloo. The Popaloo toilet uses a dry powder waste gelling system and biodegradable bags. No nasty bottles of smelly chemicals. The loose blend of powders is in each bag and has the capacity to gel 2.5 to 3.0 litres of fluid and solid waste. Just hang the bag in a bucket or in their neat foldable toilet, do a poo or even a few poos, and tie up the bag for easy disposal in a proper bin. The whole lot will biodegrade and leave nothing very much behind at all.
Just don't hang the bags on trees like some dog walkers do.
What is even better is that Popaloo donates a proceed of every sale to Toilet Twinning, a UK based charity that provides toilets to some of the world's poorest communities. The Popaloo toilet is 100% made in GB too. Next time I go camping informally in a place that is not remote I am going to use these bags. We'll be using them on our Sea Stack Odyssey and a trip to Coruisk I have in July.
For the last month I have been delivering Summer Mountain Leader training and assessment courses. It's a lot of fun and very rewarding for Sally and me to be able to pass on some of the knowledge and skills we have learned over many years. One part of the syllabus is wild camping and one topic in particular always raises a giggle, how to poo in the wild.
On these courses we are really quite remote. We have normally walked all day to a camp site and we choose to go to different places most times. The sites we use are very rarely used by other people and we only use each site once or twice ever. So, the human impact on these sites is very low. Even so, we teach "Leave no Trace" best practices which involve digging a hole well away from streams, pooing in the hole, and replacing the turf. There are all the right bacteria in the ground and in your poo to break down the poo into harmless stuff so there is no trace at all in a few months.
In hot and dry areas (deserts) with little soil to dig into, there is the smear technique. Do a poo on the surface, smear it around a bit (I'm not sure of the best tool or technique for this part) and allow the UV light from the sun to kill off bad bacteria, and the heat to dry it out. In just a few days of hot sunny weather your poo will break down into dry dusty stuff that will blow away in the wind or wash away the next time it rains.
One of the worst things to do is to lift a rock, poo under the rock, and then replace the rock. This does not bury the poo deeply enought for bacteria in the soil to break it down, UV light does not get to it either, it does not dry out and the rain will not wash it away. It seems like an easy fix but it is all bad. Do not leave your poo under a rock. If we all did that we would all end up picking up rocks and finding someone else had used it already!
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.