Great day on North Buttress, Buachaille Etive Mor

Well, the weekends seem to be coming up trumps when it comes to weather and conditions recently!  It’s been yet another clear and cold day, although it did start off a bit windier than expected.

I was out with Wes and Gary, who had come up for the regular fix of winter climbing, and I think that today hit the spot.  They’re both keen to stretch themselves and get stuck into some (all?) of the classic winter climbs in the area, and so we decided to head to Glencoe, to climb the brilliant North Buttress, which starts low down on Buachaille Etive Mor, and keeps going until pretty much at the summit.

Conditions on the route were probably the best I’ve encountered, with solid, useful neve and ice all the way.  The technical sections of the route can be climbed in three pitches, but there is still plenty of interest on the approach and exit.  It’s a journey of great value!

We topped out to clear views of the surrounding hills and bumped into a number of teams that had enjoyed themselves in Crowberry Gully.  The descent down Coire na Tulaich was also in great condition.  Some tracks on Naismith’s Route too.

Back in the Fort William area, Julie and Rich were running a winter skills course for Nottingham Trent University Mountaineering Club.  They also enjoyed themselves, on Aonach Mor, getting to grips with core winter skills that they will then put into context tomorrow by perfecting those newly learnt skills on a classic hill day.  It’s great to be able to help folk on their respective pathways to becoming independent and confident mountaineers.

Mark and I will be heading up to the CIC Hut tomorrow for the first of two five day long courses based from the hut this month.  Conditions are looking good, and the weather looks to hold through most of the coming week.

Plenty of spindrift in Green Gully, Ben Nevis

For Lee’s final day, we thought it would be a shame for him to miss out on climbing on Ben Nevis, so we went there, and climbed the brilliant Green Gully.

Overnight, a fresh blanket of snow had covered the mountain down to low levels but proved to be fairly easy to walk through.  In Coire na Ciste, there was already a team established on the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, and another walking away from Vanishing Gully, which may have still been a bit cruddy due to yesterday’s thaw.  We pushed on, passing teams setting off up a fun looking Curtain, which looked particularly good in the brief sunshine this morning.

We climbed Green Gully in five pitches, each giving its share of interest.  The steeper sections on the lower pitches were reasonable, but wouldn’t have taken screws.  The best ice was to be found on the direct finish at the top of the climb, giving a steady pitch of solid, blue ice.  We seemed to share our route with plenty of spindrift, which at times was pouring down the gully, but as the visibility closed right in at around mid morning, we didn’t see anyone else in Coire na Ciste, so have no idea whether anyone else followed us up.

We popped over to the summit, in almost complete white-out conditions, and whilst taking refuge in the summit shelter, were joined by an Italian team who had climbed Moonwalk on the Little Brenva Face, and reported great conditions there.

Nick was out in Glencoe with Dave and Adam.  They climbed North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor, which they all enjoyed.


Crowberry Gully (Left & Right Forks) & Mega Route X

Having seen tracks into and out the top of Crowberry Gully yesterday, noting that the freezing level was not going to rise significantly until the afternoon, that there wasn’t going to be a huge amount of fresh snow in the morning, and as a result the avalanche hazard wasn’t going to increase until later today, Lee and I headed to Crowberry Gully, one of Ken Wilson’s Cold Climbs.

For Lee, it was his first significant route in the Scottish Highlands, so not a bad one to start with!  We soloed a fair way up, to the foot of a short icy step, beyond which the route boasts three interesting and thinly iced slabs, all of which were in good condition today.  We topped out at about midday, so I suggested to Lee that we abseil down the Left Fork, a pitch that I hadn’t climbed before, and climb that as well.

So, we made our way down to the col of Crowberry Tower, and abseiled down.  I knew that there was a cave pitch, but I hadn’t expected it to be quite as substantial as it was.  We easily got down to the junction of the Left and Right Forks, and then made our way back up.  The Left Fork first passes under a chockstone, up an icy groove, before surmounting another small chockstone, before gaining the large and fairly shallow cave.  From here, it’s a case of thrutching, bridging, wedging and udging your way up, with reasonably foot holds, but not so great axes to a higher ledge, in the back of the cave, before committing to moving out of the cave, to gain a streak of ice to the left of the enormous chockstone that forms to the roof of the cave.  There was reasonably gear on this pitch, which both Lee and myself found strenuous but enjoyable, with plenty of opportunities to gain a rest.

We nipped to the summit, and descended Coire na Tulaich, in which the snow was starting to soften.  Quiet a few teams on Curved Ridge today.

Hannah was also out, for a day of personal climbing with Mark.  They had to battle with the winds to get into Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis, where they made a beeline for Mega Route X.  Mark led the two pitches, which Hannah followed.  They reported good conditions, a bit thin at the start, which was fine for axes, but not so good for screws. The ice improved quickly with height.  Very quiet up there, with only a few teams willing to brave the conditions, which whilst weren’t bad, were a bit of a contrast to the weekend.  Teams on Fawlty Towers, Green Gully and Ledge Route.

Perfect conditions on Curved Ridge, Glencoe

It was almost too warm today, particularly in the sunshine, during the walk in to Buachaille Etive Mor.  For our final day, Nick, Andy, Allen and I had a slightly more leisurely start, which may have meant that we were well behind the crowds, as we had a surprisingly quiet day on the brilliant Curved Ridge.

The walk in was hot, hot, hot, and there was no need for many layers or even a hat today.  Suncream and sunglasses were much more important!  Out of the sunshine was still pleasant enough, so long as we didn’t stay still for too long.

Buachaille Etive Mor showing off its colours.

Buachaille Etive Mor showing off its colours.

Alpine conditions on Curved Ridge

Alpine conditions on Curved Ridge

The ridge itself was in fantastic nick, with good, consolidated snow where needed, a nice firm track all the way, and all the belays dug out, most of which were good spikes.  This enabled us to move efficiently up the ridge, sticking to the summer line all the way.  The crux gave a nice technical step, which they all enjoyed.

Stunning views from Curved Ridge today.

Stunning views from Curved Ridge today.



Andy, Allen and Nick on the summit.

Andy, Allen and Nick on the summit.

It felt distinctly alpine as we neared the top, and made our way round the back of Crowberry Tower and up to the summit.  The descent down Coire na Tulaich was also in great condition, if a little icy in places, but allowed a fairly swift and direct descent back to the valley.  It’s been a brilliant three days with the chaps from Leeds, who have really lucked out with the current conditions!  The weather for the next three days looks a bit more up in the air, before a return to more settled weather towards the back end of the week, this will only help the development of ice up high.  Longer term synoptic charts are hinting at the arrival of another high pressure system dominating the UK through early March… Brilliant!

Andy was also out enjoying the good weather with Steve and Steve.  They enjoyed a day on Beinn Teallach, out east, in Glen Spean.


Golden Oldie & Tunnel Vision, West Chimney & Tower Ridge

I was playing back at home today, with Nick, Andy and Allan.  Allan had a fair bit of summer mountaineering experience, but had never worn crampons before, whereas his friends Nick and Andy had done a fair bit in winter before, so I thought a route like Golden Oldie would be a great introduction to winter climbing for him, and be of interest to the other two.  Quite a few other folk had similar plans this morning, but we managed to stay out in front on the approach, and once on the route, soon left the crowds behind.

The route was in perfect conditions, with the turf fully frozen and snow largely consolidated, giving first time axe placements almost every time.  We romped up the route, and were on the summit for midday.  After a quick bite to eat, we walked over to Easy Gully on the East Face, which is in great condition (no cornice, good firm but not icy snow), and made a quick descent down that, passing a couple of teams who had decided not to try and tackle the cornices above Right Twin.  We climbed Tunnel Vision, which had a great pitch of very good snow/ice (don’t expect too many screw placements) and no cornice at the top.  The main pitch of this ticked the chaps’ boxes, and with still plenty of time spare we wondered down the NE Spur, and had a look at snow bollards and abseiling before calling it a day.

Andy was out with James and Robert, they enjoyed Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, which must have been in brilliant condition.  We could see a number of teams on the Great Tower from where we were today, quite possibly Andy, James and Robert!

Finally, Chris rounded the Advance Winter Climbing Course off, by heading away from the crowds, and up to Bidean nam Bian, where he and John climbed West Chimney on Church Door Buttress and something on Collie’s Pinnacle, which he couldn’t find in the guidebook.  They’ve enjoyed a great week at a number of interesting venues.

Escape from Colditz, Blaven & catch-up

So, what’s been going on since the last post?  Quite a bit, which probably explains the lack of blogging over the past few days.

I’ve been running an Intro to Winter Mountaineering course for Moran Mountain, up in the NW Highlands.  On Sunday, we chose to stay low, to avoid the worst of the winds and made an ascent of the brilliantly named Six Track Mono Blues Gully on Meall Gorm, which must be contender for the most accessible winter climbing cliff in the UK.  Being in the lee of the mountain gave us plenty of shelter, and Sele, Gavin and Dave (who joined us for the day) enjoyed their first foray in NW Highlands.

Hannah wrapped up a Winter Skills & Summits course by making an ascent of Stob Coire Raineach in Glencoe.

Rod and his team of mountaineers were also out in Glencoe, and made an ascent of the Zig-Zags in order to stay out of the worst of the winds.

On Monday, Chris kicked off our Advanced Winter Climbing Course by climbing Scabbard Chimney on Stob Coire nan Lochan.  Chris and John then had enough time to fire up Dorsal Arete too.  Not bad going for day 1!

I headed round  with Gavin to climb the ever faithful George, which is more often in condition that not through the winter.  It’s worth noting that the tunnel through route has collapsed recently, and so the options are to climb on the right, up awkward slabs, which are better and more secure when well iced (which it wasn’t today), or a short chimney slightly further to the right. Umbrella Falls was climbed that day and reported to be in good nick.

On Tuesday, Chris and John, on the Advanced Winter Climbing Course were joined by Mike, and they climbed Morwind on the East Face of Aonach Mor, whilst I was out with my Intro Winter Climbing team sampling the delights of one of the deep, atmospheric gullies of the NW Highlands, Deep North Gully on Beinn Alligin.  We continued over the Horns to give a brilliant day out.

Today, Hannah enjoyed a day of personal climbing with Steve.  They stayed low on Ben Nevis, to avoid the suspect slopes, and climbed Gutless, an under-graded and under-rated chimney on the West Face of the Douglas Boulder.  Chris and his team climbed Castle Ridge. Several other teams also out enjoying the good weather by making ascents of The Curtain, Waterfall Gully, Tower Ridge, Vanishing Gully and possibly Stringfellow.  Still quite a bit of avalanche prone slopes though, so care and careful route choice required.

Finally, I decided to venture to Skye with my team, and climbed the short but good value Escape from Colditz III, on Blaven.  The route takes a deep leftwards trending fault on Winter Buttress, and follows a narrow, icy ramp, underneath a curtain of icicles.  We climbed the route in two pitches, offering interesting climbing all the way on dribbling ice.

Busy week! Climbing on Aonach Mor, Ben Nevis and Glencoe

It’s been a busy week so far!  I’ve been out for the past three days, running an Intermediate Winter Climbing course for Keith and Nick.  On Tuesday, with a poor forecast, we had a day in Glen Nevis, looking at belay construction, personal abseiling and had a wander up to Steall Falls, which neither Nick or Keith had seen up close before.

Yesterday, we made up for the lack of winter climbing on Tuesday by climbing the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder and Fawlty Towers, which was nice and icy, if a bit soft, and gave a nice contrast in its style of climbing to the more mixed and rocky SW Ridge.  Plenty of other folk also chose to stay low and avoid the avalanche hazards further up.  One team started up Vanishing Gully, and swiftly retreated, finding the surface ice to be a bit soft following Tuesday’s thaw.  Observatory Gully was devoid of folk, and only a few ventured high into Coire na Ciste.

Today, with westerly aspects looking like the safest place to be, we climbed the brilliant Western Rib on Aonach Mor.  Keith and Nick enjoyed the long, mountaineering nature of this route (and the access via the gondola!), particularly in the middle reaches of the route, which is a bit more mixed, rather than steep, and at times, soft snow lower down. No one else on our route, and a few teams on Golden Oldie.

Andy was out with Jonny and John over the past couple of days, they climbed Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor yesterday and were on Ben Nevis today.

Rod has a group of four friends on a private guided mountaineering course.  They kicked their course off by making the most of the weather and climbed Ledge Route on Ben Nevis.

Lastly, Matt was also out today, on the first day of three with Michael.  They too made the most of the good weather, by climbing Curved Ridge, which they enjoyed, and reported it to be quite snowy.

Matt & Michael trailblazing up Curved Ridge today.

Matt & Michael trailblazing up Curved Ridge today.

With regards to conditions, route choice will be critical over the next couple of days, as strong SW/WSW winds continue to transport snow, before a sudden rise in temperatures accompanied by heavy rain hits us around lunchtime tomorrow, which is likely to lead to spontaneous avalanches releasing and cornices collapsing, particularly on N-E aspects.  Take care out there!


The land of the rising sun: Eastern Slant, Aonach Dubh

Today I was out with Keith and Nick, on their first day of a five day Intermediate Winter Climbing Course.  With an outstanding forecast, it being half term, and Keith having climbed at a number of venues before, I decided to go to the slightly lesser travelled Far East Buttress on Aonach Dubh.

I climbed Eastern Slant for the first time back in January, and thought that despite the soft snow/slightly unfrozen vegetation, that the route itself was brilliant, and offered some quite unique climbing situations, particularly with the long and well protected traverse on pitch 2, so we headed up to Far East Buttress, but this time, with the sun shining on the crag (last time was very stormy!).

The approach was over firm snow, which made life nice and easy, so we were climbing in no time.  Whilst the turf was frozen solid, some of the snow and ice was starting to deteriorate from the sunshine (yes, sunshine!), but the route was in good nick overall.

With it being possibly the nicest day of the year, we decided to make a journey of it and after topping out, we headed round over Gearr Aonach and descended the Zig Zags, which were surprisingly icy.

Many teams climbing on Stob Coire nan Lochan, no one else on Far East Buttress, all change tomorrow!

Care required! SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, Ben Nevis

Yesterday, Hannah was out on a personal climbing day with Steve, they made the long, but worthwhile approach (2nd time for Han this week) to Church Door Buttress on Bidean nam Bian, where they climbed yet more esoterica – the brilliant part caving, part winter climbing expedition that is Crypt Route, which Han seemed to enjoy more and have less problems in than Steven (who is quite tall).  They reported good conditions, and not another soul about up there.

Chris Thorne was out working for West Coast Mountain Guides.  He was with Pete, and they climbed Hadrian’s Wall Direct on Ben Nevis, and reported the approach to be fine, unlike many other areas of the mountain.  The strong easterly winds and cold temperatures (coupled with in places, a shallow snow pack), has led to both the accumulations of windslab and formation of facets within the snow pack, leading to a number of human triggered avalanches in multiple locations.  Many teams abandoned their plans or stayed low yesterday.

I was on an Avalanche Workshop, organised by Alan Kimber, on behalf of the Chris Walker Memorial Trust.  As ever, it was an informative day spent partly inside, discussing theory, and then a circuit of Nevis Range, looking at the rather interesting (and potentially hazardous) distribution of windslab and facets.  Hannah attended a similar day today.

Windslab releasing rather too easily.

Windslab releasing rather too easily. NE aspect, Aonach Mor.

Chris was back out with Pete today, and they climbed Raeburn’s Route and Pinnacle Buttress Grooves on Stob Coire nan Lochan.  Conditions look good up there.

Lena was out delivering a day of winter skills to Alex on Buachaille Etive Beag in Glencoe, they had a productive and enjoyable day.

I had a late start with Dave and Rob, who had caught the sleeper up from down south.  Unfortunately, with various delays, they didn’t arrive in Fort William until midday, so with the expectation of finishing a bit late, we headed straight for Ben Nevis.  On the approach, we bumped into two teams walking out, both of whom had been caught in avalanches, but were fortunately ok, if a bit shaken.  One team were caught in a release whilst heading up to Point 5 Gully, another up towards No. 3 Gully Buttress.  The strong overnight winds have continued to redistribute the snow, and so there are some significant instabilities now on NW-S aspects.

With a late start, we made for the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, which gave a safe approach and enjoyable climb, which both Dave and Rob flew up.  We then abseiled and descended the East Gully, before yomping out to be back at the van for 5pm.  Not bad going! The snow on the ridge is quite soft and very dry, but the turf is very well frozen at the moment.

We saw teams on Waterfall Gully, Central Gullies of Creag Coire na Ciste, The Gift, Comb Gully, Tower Ridge and NE Buttress.

If anyone knows the team who were avalanched beneath Point 5 Gully, can you let them know that I have handed an ice axe and glove in to Fort William police station.


More subterranean adventures: Flake Route, Bidean

Continuing yesterday’s theme of squeezing into tight spaces, Hannah and I had a rare day off together, and so ventured up to the brilliant Church Door Buttress on Bidean nam Bian, to look at Flake Route.  Whilst the approach feels long, we took a couple of hours from the car park to the foot of the route, just next to the esoteric and truly subterranean Crypt Route.  Flake Route by comparison is quite ‘en plein air’.

The route moves straight into a deep and narrow slot (but not quite as narrow as The Clanger which I climbed yesterday), so we decided that leaving the packs at the foot of the buttress was a wise move.  Gaining the crack was fairly straight forward, although making progress, at times, once established in the body width chimney, was a bit tricky (yet secure), with plenty of body wedging and arm barring, along with useless foot pedalling, as some of the snow was quite unconsolidated.  From just beyond the exit of the slot, Hannah took over, and led a fairly straight forward pitch to converge with West Chimney, which Steve & Dot and Mike with his two clients were enjoying themselves on. Steve was grateful that the tunnel pitch on West Chimney is no longer!

A number of routes all finish up Raeburn’s Chimney, which probably forms the crux of Flake Route, just,  so we all moved efficiently to minimise hold-ups.  It turns out we weren’t the only ones enjoying Bidean today, a number of top end climbers were also trying some harder lines, which didn’t finish up Raeburn’s Chimney.