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Just about hanging on: NE Buttress

It certainly feels like winter is trying to make a sneaky exit now, but it is hanging on, just. I was out with Paul today, and he was keen for an adventurous route and hadn’t climbed on Ben Nevis before, so we decided to go for NE Buttress, which had seen ascents over the weekend, and I thought would be just about holding on.

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Views south

The approach slopes were still mostly on snow, but with a few gaps of rock and vegetation now showing. The first snowy left trending ramp was thinning in places, but he pitch leading up to the second platform was mostly on good snow and ice, with the odd rocky step. The second platform was still quite snowy, with some good consolidated stuff in places. From here on, the crest was in not bad shape, but the Mantrap was completely dry, and the 40ft Corner was mostly dry for the first 30ft or so, but still had some useful snow on the upper ledges.

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Leading up to the second platform

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Views across the north face

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Paul enjoying the situation

 

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

40 Foot Corner

Regardless of conditions, we needed axes and crampons throughout, had great fun and it gave Paul the perfect introduction to climbing on Ben Nevis. The weather, once again, was nothing short of amazing. Very quiet on the mountain today, but a pair did climb Point 5 Gully, and reported it to be ok, if a little soft for reassuring ice screws. I could see a couple of teams on Tower Ridge and a few on Ledge Route.

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Climbers in Tower Gap

The Cascade and Expert’s Choice were both climbed yesterday, and looked ok today, but that might all change tomorrow afternoon as this great spell of weather is due to come to an end.

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Looking up Observatory Gully

Great conditions on NE Buttress

After a couple of days off, I was back out on Ben Nevis today, with Ken & Glenn. Ken and I climbed the SW Ridge a number of years ago, and ever since then, we’ve tried to fit in a day on NE Buttress, but for one reason or another, the opportunity hasn’t materialised, until today.

It was clear when walking in this morning that today was going to be brilliant, with cold, calm conditions, rime on the upper cliffs of the mountain, numerous dribbles of ice and consolidated snow on the approach. In fact, this must be my favourite time of the year in the Highlands, when the days are longer, the mountains quieter and options to either rock or winter climb, as well as ski and bike, oh and before the midges arrive.

There was a track on the approach to NE Buttress, and although there were pillows of windslab about, much of it was avoidable. The route itself had some very useful patches of ice and plenty of consolidated snow, allowing for efficient progress, with plenty of ‘first time’ axe placements. Ken and Glen have climbed a lot over the years, and so found much of the climbing straight forward, although both paused for thought at the Mantrap (completely dry) and 40 Foot Corner (thinly iced, with some useful snow on the ledges). We descended via Coire Leis, which again, with all the snow, was very straight forward.

NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

Glenn above the Second Platform

NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

Ken in the 40 Foot Corner

The ice is forming higher up, but it’s still tricky to tell from a distance whether Indicator Wall and Hadrian’s Wall are climbable. Point 5 Gully was climbed, and Smith’s looked ok, if thin. Ditto for Tower Scoop. Plenty of mid-grade routes in Coire na Ciste looked fine from a distance too. The weather this weekend looks very promising, but an early start will prove worthwhile to make the most of the cooler temperatures.

NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

Success!

 

NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

NE Buttress to Tower Ridge

 

NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

Coire na Ciste

Surprisingly pleasant on Comb Gully

With ferocious winds forecast for first thing this morning, Matt, Dave and I had a slightly later start, and despite the odd squally wind, had a fairly reasonable walk up to Coire na Ciste this morning.  There had been some overnight snow, but only the lightest of dustings.  The slopes leading up to Comb Gully had refrozen well through the night, making travel up to the mouth of the gully quite straight forward, although there was an icy crust in places.

Comb Gully Ben Nevis Winter Climbing Course

Ben Nevis this morning

Once established in the gully, it was clear that spindift was going to be a constant feature of the day, but asides from that, the gully gave an enjoyable climb, with good axe placements where it really mattered.  There was a bit more ice (and snow) than when I climbed it the other day, but overall, it felt quite similar (bold yet fun and steady climbing).

Comb Gully Ben Nevis Winter Climbing Course

Above the first steepening

The final pitch of Comb Gully was cornice free, so again, very straight forward. A French team, staying at the hut climbed Green Gully and reported it to be fine after a thin (for 5m or so) first pitch. Other than that it was very quiet up there today.

Comb Gully Ben Nevis Winter Climbing Course

Final steepening

The Indecisive Winter Continues…

It seems to me that winter has been indecisive this season, with things looking promising one minute and then a substantial thaw setting in the next, quite often during the same day.  Today was no exception to that pattern, with plenty of snow down to 500m overnight and cold conditions first thing this morning, before the freezing level once again rose, bringing with it rain to the summits. It was certainly a day of two halves.

Sw Ridge Douglas Boulder

Wintry this morning

This pattern will play havoc with cornice collapse and triggering wet sluffs, so Katie, Austin and I decided to play it safe and climbed the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder for the last day of their five day winter climbing course. We weren’t the only ones on the Douglas Boulder today, as other teams made ascents of the East Ridge and Gutless. For both Katie and Austin, it was their first proper taste of mixed climbing, and so both of them took a bit of adjusting to get into the swing of hooking and torquing their axes and trusting their crampons on small edges. This adjustment phase is no bad thing, as it will enable them to progress their winter climbing techniques for the future and to tackle a more diverse range of routes.

South West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Katie on the ridge, smiling as always!

We witnessed quite a sizeable sluff pouring down Vanishing Gully, which does have some ice on the second pitch, but not enough to climb at the moment! It’s looking quite wintry for the beginning of next week, so fingers crossed.

SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Team selfie

Comb Gully before the thaw

This week, I’m running a five day climbing course, with Katie and Austin. Conditions since the weekend haven’t exactly been what I would describe as stellar, but we’ve had a productive three days so far.

On Monday, we made an ascent of No. 3 Gully Buttress, which was as reliable as ever. The first pitch of ice is now shorter than it was a couple of weeks ago, due to recent snows, and the final pitch of the direct finish is a bit easier now too.

With a rather wild forecast yesterday, we thought we would go into Coire na Ciste to see how wild it was, and whether we could find shelter somewhere… The wind was howling, so rather than press on into the foul weather, we changed plans and after coffee and cake at the Pinemarten Cafe, we went to  Glen Nevis to look at gear placements, belays and personal abseiling.

Today was all about starting (and finishing early), as the forecast was for a marked deterioration and thaw from late morning onwards. Along with a number of others, we headed into Coire na Ciste in the hope of seeing what the previous day’s thaw had done. Unfortunately, the cloud base was about level with the base of The Comb, so we decided to wonder up and have a look in Comb Gully.  The entry pitches were quite promising, filled with firm snow, so we pushed on and found the climbing to be great fun, with enough reasonable ice and firm snow where necessary. The ice wasn’t good enough for ice screws today, but axe placements were mostly ok. With verglass on the rocks, spindrift funnelling down the route and being enclosed in one of the finest gullies on Ben Nevis, it all felt like a traditional Scottish winter day, until the freezing level shot passed us on the final pitch. Then it felt wet. This was Austin’s first taste of grade IV climbing, and there’s no better route (or mountain) to sample it on! Katie also enjoyed herself and couldn’t stop smiling throughout.

Comb Gully Winter Climbing Course

First of the steeper pitches

 

Comb Gully Winter Climbing Course

Looking up the gully

 

Comb Gully Winter Climbing Course

Austin enjoying the steep climbing

 

Comb Gully Winter Climbing Course

Katie above the crux pitch

It was quite still in the corrie early on, so we could hear Mike and his team on The Cascade, and Steve with Marie on Glover’s Chimney, which he reported to have a mushy and serious first pitch. There were a couple of teams making their way up No. 3 Gully as well.

Mike Thomas was also out for us today. He was with another Mike, and they climbed No. 3 Gully Buttress, again with an early start.

Brilliant week at the CIC Hut, Ben Nevis

Last week, Mark S and I ran one of our annual CIC Hut Weeks, based at the UK’s only true alpine hut, on Ben Nevis. The hut, which is well heated and makes for an extremely comfortable and convenient base, is situated at 650m above sea level, at the very foot of the north face of Ben Nevis. This means that approaches each day to many of the UK’s finest ice and mixed climbs are minimal, allowing for maximum climbing time and making the absolute most of the prevailing conditions… and making the absolute most of the prevailing conditions is exactly what Mark, Neil, Michael, Simon, Steve and myself were able to do.

Normally, the first day is a leisurely affair, with time for last minute food shopping and a stroll up to the CIC Hut in the afternoon, but with a mixed forecast for the week, we decided to head up to the hut sharpish and to climb a short route that afternoon, just in case we were faced with a hut-bound day later in the week. We made a mass ascent of the increasingly popular East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, which gave us three interesting pitches of mixed climbing. The highlight of the route is the second pitch, which tackles a two tiered corner, which whilst strenuous, is not too technical, on great hooks and with good gear.

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Second Pitch of the East Ridge

On Monday, team West Coast made another mass ascent, this time of the brilliant NE Buttress, which I still think is one of my favourite routes of its grade in the UK. The lack of consolidation made the climbing a bit trickier, but still great fun and was thoroughly enjoyed by all. The Mantrap was fairly dry and didn’t pose too much of a hurdle, however, the 40 Foot Corner above was a bit more awkward, with very little useful snow, ice or gear.

NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

On NE Buttress

 

NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

40 Ft Corner

 

NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

Steve on the 40 Ft Corner

Tuesday saw Steve, Simon and I climbing the first icy pitch of Wendigo, on Creag Coire na Ciste. There was just enough ice to make for a secure and fun pitch. We did consider traversing into Central Gully R/H, but having not climbed the inviting mixed pitches of Wendigo before, we continued up the route. None of us were disappointed by the brilliantly absorbing and exposed climbing that makes a rising traverse to the final snow bowl and summit plateau. Meanwhile, further along Creag Coire na Ciste, Mark, Neil and Michael had fun on Lost The Place.

Wendigo CIC Hut Week Ben Nevis

Wendigo

 

Wendigo CIC Hut Week

Wendigo

With the winds due to pick up on Wednesday afternoon, we all opted for a quick hit. Mark, Steve and Simon climbed the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, whilst Michael and I climbed Jacknife to then join the SW Ridge. I had forgotten how good the main pitch of Jacknife was, having last climbed it in 2011. Sure enough, as we were descending the East Gully of the Douglas Boulder, the winds picked up and the temperature rose.

Jacknife CIC Hut Week

Looking up Jacknife

 

Jacknife CIC Hut Week

Wild weather whilst on Jacknife

 

Jacknife, CIC Hut Week

Looking down the main pitch of Jacknife

 

Jacknife CIC Hut Week

SW Ridge, having climbed Jacknife

 

SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Abseiling off the Douglas Boulder

Thursday morning brought with it a degree of uncertainty, due to the thaw from the previous day and night, so to play it safe, we decided to all go for Tower Ridge and to let things settle down during the day. However, whilst gearing up at the foot of the East Gully of the Douglas Boulder, I did wonder whether the thaw might have caused the snow to become a bit more dense and therefore provide good footholds on the more difficult pitches of Observatory Ridge. With there only really being one way to find out, Michael and I soon found ourselves part way up the long and sustained Observatory Ridge. My theory applied to the first pitch or so of the ridge, thereafter, the thaw hadn’t really affected the snow and it was a case of clearing a lot of it from the ledges to uncover tiny ledges for crampons and to dig around for usable axe placements. Observatory Ridge is renown for being tough in these conditions, and I certainly can’t deny that it was hard work (but still enjoyable), but we both kept our foot down, and ploughed our way up. Above the difficulties, with still plenty of climbing still to go, a French couple, who were also staying at the hut, overtook us, and put in a welcome track up the final pitches of Zero Gully, which was largely full of soft-ish snow, with a couple of icy steps. Meanwhile, Steve and Simon enjoyed their day on Tower Ridge with Mark.

Observatory Ridge, Ben Nevis

Looking up at Zero Gully from the start of Observatory Ridge

 

Observatory Ridge, CIC Hut Week

High on Observatory Ridge

 

Echo Wall and Tower Ridge

 

Observatory Ridge, CIC Hut Week

Digging required on Observatory Ridge

Observatory Ridge, Ben Nevis

Looking across at Tower Ridge

 

CIC Hut Week

Teams on Tower Ridge

 

Observatory Ridge CIC Hut Week

Above the difficulties on Observatory Ridge

 

CIC Hut Week

Looking down the final pitches of Zero Gully.

 

Observatory Ridge CIC Hut Week

Final pitch of Zero Gully/Observatory Ridge

Steve and Simon, having had their fill of winter climbing for the week, headed down early. So, for the final day, with conditions once again due to deteriorate in the afternoon, an early start saw Mark and Neil climbing Jacknife on the Douglas Boulder, whilst Michael and I climbed the atmospheric chimney of Gutless, which is a brilliant route, with some great mixed climbing, particularly on the main second pitch (so long as you enjoy climbing chimneys).  We were all back at the hut by 10am, just as the drizzle started, and enjoying fish and chips in Whetherspoons in Fort William by 1pm, finishing off another great course at the CIC Hut.

Gutless, CIC Hut Week

Above the main pitch of Gutless

 

 

 

 

Early bird catches the worm: No. 3 Gully Buttress

We’ve just had a cold snap, which started yesterday afternoon, and finished at about midday today. So with an earlyish start, Stuart and I made the most of the cold weather

window, and had fun climbing No. 3 Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. On the approach, the sky had a reddish tinge, which is normally a sign of inclement weather in the pipeline.

Overnight, a light dusting of snow had fallen and things were looking a bit more wintry this morning as we approached Coire na Ciste. Whilst visibility was still quite poor once in the corrie, the icefall at the foot of No. 3 Gully Buttress was just about visible. Stuart was keen to step up his winter climbing and so we tackled the icefall direct, giving a brilliant step of grade 4 ice, which was in good condition. The ice on the shallower sections above was a bit hollow in places, but much of it could be avoided.

No. 3 Gully Buttress, Winter Climbing Course

Good ice on the fist pitch

 

Winter Climbing Course

Stuart above the icy step on pitch 1

 


After the crux step, we climbed the direct finish, which gives a fun pitch of mixed steps, grooves and corners, before a final squeeze chimney marked the end of the difficulties. It was all wintry enough from the overnight snow. We topped out just as the freezing level met the summit plateau, so aware that the winds were going to pick up, we descended No. 3 Gully, and spent some time looking at various snow and ice screw belays throughout our descent.

No. 3 Gully Buttress, Winter Climbing Course

Looking down the direct finish

True to the saying ‘red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning’, the winds and rain picked up dramatically early afternoon, but it’s going to turn quite wintry again this evening, and looks to stay cold for the foreseeable future… Winter’s not over yet!

 

 

Plenty of action! Glencoe, Ben Nevis & Beinn Dorain

There’s no denying that this winter, we’ve been lucky to enjoy plenty of cold, clear days. Yesterday was no exception.  However, the SE winds were due to be quite bracing at times, so seeking shelter seemed to be part of most teams’ plans. For Nick, Keith and myself, as well as our Advanced Winter Climbing team; Mark, Jon and Spenser, Stob Coire nan Lochan was to provide that shelter for the day.

Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe

The cliffs of Stob Coire nan Lochan

Both teams started up the classic route of Twisting Gully, which whilst being a bit on the lean side, provided some great mixed climbing. We continued up the true line, whilst Mark and his team peeled off to finish up the upper chimneys of Twisting Grooves. Nick and I then went on to climb Pearly Gates, which starts part the way up Broad Gully. This gave us a couple of enjoyable and atmospheric pitches, with a grandstand view of the multiple teams on Dorsal Arete.  From the top of Pearly Gates, with such clear skies, we couldn’t resist the temptation to head to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan to take in the views.  Amazingly, despite some strong gusts whilst on Twisting Gully,  it was completely still on the summit.

Twisting Grooves

Spenser in one of the twisting grooves on Twisting Grooves

 

Twisting Gully

Nick on Twisting Gully

 

Stob Coire nan Lochan

Clear views from Stob Coire nan Lochan

Further down Glencoe, Henry and his Introductory Winter Climbing team climbed Curved Ridge, which they reported to be in good condition. Whilst Stob Coire nan Lochan had lost much of its rime ice overnight, particularly from easterly aspects, Buchaille Etive Mor still seemed to be holding onto it well, particularly in sheltered locations such as in the vicinity of Crowberry Gully.

Andy was out with Ali and Max on the first of two Private Guiding days. They climbed Fawlty Tower on Ben Nevis and again, reported good conditions with plenty of frozen turf.

Fawlty Towers, Ben Nevis

Good conditions on Fawlty Towers

 

Fawlty Towers

Descending Tower Ridge after climbing Fawlty Towers

Lastly and by no means least, Hannah was out on a personal climbing day with Duncan and Steve. They headed down to Beinn Dorain, by the Bridge of Orchy, where they climbed the brilliant 3 star VII,7, The Messiah. You can read more about their day on Steve’s blog. Sterling effort by the trio, and a good decision to head south, as the mixed routes on Stob Coire nan Lochan were no longer in condition.

The Messiah

Hannah leading up to the crux pitch of The Messiah

 

The Messiah

Steve on the crux pitch

 

The Messiah

Duncan on the final pitch

Blustery Day: South Gully, Ben Nevis

Steve and I headed out early this morning up to Ben Nevis for a day of personal climbing.  The mountain was looking brilliant this morning, with clear views to the summit, so we headed up high to have a go at a mixed route that both of us have had on our radars for some time now.

Unfortunately, despite the crags looking white, it was clear from the first few moves that the rocks weren’t bonded well due to the lack of ice holding it all together, so rather than force our way up on wobbly hooks and blocks, we decided to change tact. Having heard that both Central Gullies had been climbed quite a bit recently, we thought that South Gully, a route that neither of us had done, might be worth investigating. However, on starting up the second pitch, which is quite tricky to see into from below, we found it to be rather lean, and required a bit more mixed climbing than snow/ice climbing as we had expected. Good to climb it, but I wouldn’t rush up there if I were you.

Winter conditions Ben Nevis

Clear on Ben Nevis this morning

Quite quiet on the mountain today, with only a few teams out, climbing Ledge Route, No. 3&4 Gullies, North Gully and Central Gully R/H. The winds picked up quite a bit as the morning progressed, forming noticeable wind slab in a number of sheltered areas. Temperatures are slowly rising this evening, which will help consolidate the snow and start binding the rock together when it cools back down.

South Gully Ben Nevis

The lean second pitch of South Gully

South Gully Ben Nevis

Me setting off on the final pitch of South Gully

South Gully Ben Nevis

Steve on the final slopes of South Gully

Meanwhile over on the East Face of Aonach Mor, it seems that with the face catching a bit more morning sunshine, the ice up there has formed much better in places than on Ben Nevis.  Hannah, Lena and Dave enjoyed a couple of unnamed ice routes at about grade III/IV, and reported good ice. Looks like we should have gone there instead!

East Face Aonach Mor

Dave enjoying good ice on Aonach Mor

Ice East Face Aonach Mor

Lena getting stuck into great ice on Aonach Mor

Ice to be found on Little Brenva Face, Ben Nevis

Despite the lack of recent snows, Stu Lade, who worked on one of our CIC Hut Weeks last winter, found some good ice high on Ben Nevis, on Little Brenva Face. The face can turn into rather undefined dribbles of ice, so route finding isn’t always straight forward, but he thought that they started up Bob Run, before finishing up, or very near to Moonwalk. They also climbed a couple of 30m of steep ice, one of which was Final Buttress. A number of British Mountain Guides were also enjoying the ice up there whilst on their winter induction and climbed Cresta along with the other routes. Looks like a great find given current conditions! Cheers to Stu for the photos.

Reports of other teams on The Web and Right Twin on Aonach Mor, both of which were thin but climbable.

Little Brenva Face

Little Brenva Face

Little Brenva Face

Little Brenva Face

Little Brenva Face