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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

 

 

 

 

Storm Doris brings welcome snow

It was quite clear on waking up this morning that more snow had fallen than the forecasts had suggested, but I must admit, I was quite surprised when I saw exactly how much on the approach to Ben Nevis this morning. Clearly Storm Doris had pushed a bit further north than we had expected.

Castle Ridge, Winter Climbing Course

A winter wonderland on the approach this morning

Castle Ridge, Winter Climbing Course

German team breaking trail this morning

Wes, Sean and I had a number of ideas as to what to climb on Ben Nevis today, but as it dawned on us exactly how much snow had fallen and drifted on fresh winds, it was clear that progress into Coire na Ciste was going to be tough work and potentially avalanche prone, and so we quickly changed our plans to climb Castle Ridge instead. Both Wes and Sean had climbed Castle Ridge in summer conditions last year, and so having been transformed overnight into full winter garb, it was a logical choice.

Not wanting to snow plough uphill for too long, we opted to cut beneath Carn Dearg Buttress. The turf was starting to freeze, and there were quite a few dribbles of ice on the rocks throughout the route. None of which was particularly solid just yet. The majority of the route was as snowy as I’ve seen it this year, apart from the upper crux, which was quite clear of snow compared to the rest of the route. For Wes, this was his third of Ben Nevis’ ridges climbed in winter, whereas for Sean, his first.

Castle Ridge, Winter Climbing Course

Above the first groove

Castle Ridge, Winter Climbing Course

Sean on the crux of Castle Ridge

 

The descent down the northern flanks of Carn Dearg was straight forward, as we found a great line of soft snow to wade down.

Meanwhile, just around the corner, Steve was out with John and Gavin. They were on Ledge Route and getting some mileage in, in preparation for a trip to summit Mount Elbrus later this year. The Scottish Highlands are a great place for training for the Greater Ranges.

Hannah was out with Julia, who is over from Spain, preparing for her Winter Mountain Leader Assessment. They had a great day on the Ballachulish Horseshoe, and also got to enjoy wading through deep snow. It’s nice to finally have some snow again.

Winter Skills Course

Julia navigating

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!

 

 

Up No. 3 Gully, down Tower Gully, Ben Nevis

Today I was joined by Daniel and Peter, with the aim of reaching the summit of Ben Nevis via a fun, wintry and adventurous route. An ascent via No. 3 Gully seems to fit the bill nicely, and so we ventured up into Coire na Ciste and up No. 3 Gully, which was in good nick, with some firmer snow towards the top.

No. 3 Gully

On the way up to No. 3 Gully

No. 3 Gully

Ascending No. 3 Gully

No. 3 Gully

The final steepening of No. 3 Gully

We wondered over to the summit, which felt like it could pop out of the clouds at any minute, but alas, it wasn’t clear enough, so we spent our time on the summit under a watery sun. That said, it was quite dry on the summit.

Ben Nevis

On the summit of Ben Nevis

On the way back, we had a peak down into Tower Gully, which looked quite inviting, with only faint steps in soft snow, so made our way down there.  With the snow being quite soft underfoot, if felt very friendly. We were able to remain on the snow until quite low down in Observatory Gully. The combination of ascending No. 3 Gully up to the summit and then descending Tower Gully gave Peter and Daniel a great day of winter mountaineering, and allowed them to fully explore one of the finest mountains in the UK.

Tower Gully

Looking up Tower Gully

Tower Gully

Descending Tower Gully

Great day on Curved Ridge, Glencoe

 

Plan A for today had been Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, but on seeing the avalanche forecast, which indicated that there would be a high avalanche hazard on NW-NE slopes above 900m, we decided to change plan, and headed to Glencoe instead, where we climbed the classic Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor.

On the walk-in, we spent some time talking about heuristic traps, which seems wholly appropriate. If you haven’t heard of heuristic traps when it comes to avalanches, it’s well worth reading the following articles:
http://www.northernmountainsport.co.uk/index.php?/eng/content/download/1533/7517/file/Avalanche%20article.pdf
https://www.glenmorelodge.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Avoid-Being-Avalanched-AH-TGO-Nov-2013.pdf
https://www.glenmorelodge.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Talking-Yourself-Out-of-Avalanche-Trouble-AH-TGO-Dec-2013.pdf

Curved Ridge, Glencoe

The snow on Curved Ridge is starting to consolidate and good in places, but still quite loose in others, which enabled Jess and Rich to get stuck into a variety of mixed climbing techniques. Above the crux, they took turns on the sharp end before we reached the summit of Stob Dearg, amazingly with not a breath of wind. It has been another great day with the pair from Yorkshire.Curved Ridge

Curved Ridge

Curved Ridge

Quite a few teams on North Buttress, as well as a couple of teams on Shelf Route. One team did attempt the NE Zig Zags, but retreated after the third pitch, reporting poor conditions.

Sticking to the ridges

With all the fresh snow that has recently fallen and blown about, Jess, Rich and I decided to make life easier for ourselves and stick to climbing ridges over the past two days.

Yesterday, with a deterioration in the weather due for early afternoon, we opted for an early start and climbed the East Ridge of the North Top of Stob Ban. Even with an early start, the winds were still quite bracing, but manageable. It wasn’t a day for hanging about, so we made a fairly swift ascent, before we made a sharp right turn at the top and descended the north ridge. Steve was out shadowing us, as he had not been along the ridge before. Thanks to him for the photos.

Today, Jess wasn’t feeling great, so decided to give today a miss. That left Rich and I breaking trail to Castle Ridge. As the freezing levels had risen but not quite to the summits last night, before dropping back down again, we found the lower two thirds of the ridge to be in much better conditions, with frozen turf and consolidating snow, than the top third which where the rocks weren’t well bonded together and the snowy very dry and powdery. That all said, Rich enjoyed every minute of the route, and found the crux, which is quite a bit harder than anything else on the route, quite challenging. I hope that he didn’t come to Scotland expecting an easy ride!

We’ve got a mass of cold polar air moving over the UK as of this evening, so it’s going to be a cold, but fairly settled period ahead, which is great news.

 

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

Winter returns! Dorsal Arete & Pincer

Finally, it’s what we’ve all been waiting for, snow! And a reasonable amount of it at that.  As we drove through to Glencoe this morning, it was actually a little disappointing to only see the lightest of dustings on the Pap of Glencoe, but as the morning progressed, the snow continued to accumulate and by the time we got up to Coire nan Lochan this morning, it felt like winter had properly returned.

Winter Conditions Glencoe

A welcome sight this morning in Glencoe

I was out, working for Hebridean Pursuits, with Ruth and Rob, who were part of a large contingent from the University of Manchester Mountaineering Club. They had both rock climbed quite a bit in the past, and were keen to transfer those skills to Scottish winter climbing. On gaining the corrie floor, we decided that the turf would be frozen enough to warrant an ascent of Dorsal Arete, which after the cold, clear days of late, it was. The climbing still required a bit of care as some of the blocks were still a bit loose. Ruth and Rob did a great job of leading themselves up the route, with me climbing alongside, coaching en route. We topped out into fairly fresh winds, which were transporting the snow and causing rime to build on the rocks. It all felt rather wintry, which was reassuring!

Winter Climbing Course

Rob enjoying the route

Winter Climbing Course

Ruth belaying

Winter Climbing Course

Rob on the final pitch

Plenty of teams in Broad Gully. The fresh snow has covered any patches that have survived, so expect hidden patches of icy snow lurking beneath the fresh, particularly in gullies and east facing slopes.

Winter Climbing Conditions Glencoe

Rob and Ruth at the top of the route

Hannah and Mark had an adventure on Ben Nevis today, where they climbed Pincer, which is mentioned as a good early season route in Chasing the Ephemeral. They said that finding the start was a bit tricky, but once on it, by following your nose, it was fairly straight forward route finding, and that conditions were quite good. Quite a few teams on Creag Coire na Ciste and Trident Buttresses, as well as rocky, mixed routes on the East Face of Aonach Mor.  All things considered, it’s shaping up to be a pretty good weekend for winter climbing.