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Great week at the CIC Hut, Ben Nevis

Last week, Mark S and I ran a five day long winter climbing course based out of the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis, which is Britain’s only true alpine hut  and gives unrivalled access to the some of the finest winter climbing cliffs.  The weather decided to play ball  for much of last week too, enabling Neil, Mark C, David and Jeff to climb a number of classic winter climbs.

On Monday, under blue skies and sunshine, Mark S, Neil and Mark C climbed Minus 2 Gully, which they reported to be in great condition.  Neil and Mark C had climbed on Ben Nevis many times over the years, but hadn’t climbed NE Buttress before, so the team continued to the summit via the buttress, taking in the Mantrap (the single hardest move on the mountain?!) and the Forty Foot Corner.   On the other side of NE Buttress, on the Little Brenva face, Jeff, David and myself were basking in the sunshine, whilst climbing Cresta Direct before traversing to finish up Moonwalk, therefore linking some of the steeper ice pitches in the vicinity, giving a very alpine feel to our day.

The following morning, we woke to slightly murky conditions, and so opted to stay low and made a group ascent of The Curtain, which was in reasonable nick, if a little thin on the first pitch.  David and I then made our way over to have a look at Vanishing Gully,  by which point the freezing levels had crept up causing the approach slopes to start to feel a bit spooky, and as a result, we chose not to push on up steepening slopes that lead to the foot of the route.  Mark S, Neil and Mark C climbed the first pitch of Gemini that afternoon.

Wednesday brought with it another settled day, so wanting to make the most of it, Jeff, David and I started early, in order to beat the crowds, and broke trail all the way up a very snowy Tower Ridge.  The clouds hung around during the first half, but soon cleared to give another fine day. There’s something quite magical about being the first team on Tower Ridge, and not having a track to follow.  We then descended Ledge Route, from where some of the best views of the mountain are to be found.  Mark S and his team climbed Observatory Buttress, and found the easier angled pitches above the crux to be hard work, with plenty of unconsolidated snow lying beneath a thin, icy crust.  That said, they still enjoyed themselves on one of the finest ice routes on the mountain.  A team also climbed Zero Gully that day.

Thursday promised another fine day, so Mark C, David and myself started early, and made an ascent of one of the most iconic ice climbs on Ben Nevis, Orion Face Direct, which at 420m is also one of the longest.  We enjoyed a clear run all the way, with near perfect conditions throughout.  The crux traverse was so well iced that it felt quite easy for the grade, the second pitch of the route giving the steepest and most sustained climbing of the day.  Other teams on Astral Highway, Minus 1 & 2 Gullies and Observatory Buttress.  Mark S and Neil climbed Vanishing Gully and Waterfall Gully that day.

Waking up on Friday, having been listening to the rain and wind beating down through the night, it was quite evident that there was no way that the climbing would match that of the previous few days, and so after a leisurely breakfast or two, we made our way down and made the most of Fish Friday in Whetherspoons on Fort William High Street.  So, despite not climbing on the final day, it was a nice way to end what has been a great week, with fun company, amazing conditions and a good haul of winter climbs.  I’ll be back up at the CIC Hut next Sunday for another five day course, fingers crossed for such good conditions then!

Yesterday, the company was great, but conditions less so.  I was out with Barry and Radu, and with a thaw in progress, we went to one of the most snow sure mountaineering ridges in the Highlands, the Forcan Ridge in Glenshiel.  The ridge was quite bare lower down, but improved with height with snow encountered for much of the route to the summit of The Saddle.

Other West Coast teams out over the past few days, including Tom who was out with the Branch family.  They enjoyed two mountaineering days on School House Ridge in Glencoe on Friday and the Dubh Ridge to the Climber’s Col on Aonach Mor on Saturday.  Rusty was out with Arran and Dave.  They climbed Fawlty Towers on Ben Nevis on Friday, and were on Stob Coire nan Lochan yesterday.  Finally, Scott was out with Michael and Marion yesterday, in Glencoe.

So, what about this coming week?  A high pressure system is set to dominate for much of the week, which will give clear skies and so warm days, but cool nights, which will firm up the currently rather soggy snow pack.  Heat loss through night time radiation should also help firm up the ice, although early starts may be necessary to make the most of the cooler temperatures.  Some of the thinner ice routes (Gemini, Mega Route X, Minus 1, Orion Direct etc.) will have suffered as a result of the thaw this weekend, but the major drainage lines (Hadrians, Point 5, Green Gully) should remain climbable once those cooler nights come around.

Some interesting reading regarding this current high pressure here:

http://www.ukweatherforecast.co.uk/topic/72-high-pressure-dominates-this-week-bringing-plenty-of-settled-weather/
http://blog.metoffice.gov.uk/2016/03/11/high-pressure-keeping-things-mostly-settled/

 

 

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.

 

Reasonable on Western Rib, West Face of Aonach Mor

Route choice was absolutely crucial today, with an overnight thaw and rain upping the avalanche hazard to high on NW-SE aspects above 800m.  So Lee and I were after the following: W/SW facing, ridge or buttress, turfy ledges, safe approach and descent and a route that would give good climbing, so Western Rib, on the West Face of Aonach Mor, ticked all those boxes nicely.

We were only one of two teams on the climber’s gondola at 8am, and we made our way, in quite reasonable conditions, round to the West Face of Aonach Mor.  It was clear from early on, that the turf, particularly higher up, was still well frozen, which is where the requirement for turfy ledges came from.

The approach to Western Rib was safe and despite the thaw, the route was generally in very good condition, with frozen turf throughout, and plenty of useful snow on the ledges.  The snow cover thinned a bit through the more technical sections, but overall it was in good nick.  With the threat of stronger winds in the afternoon possibly affecting the gondola, we didn’t hang about, but were able to relax a bit upon seeing the tows still operating once we had reached the ski area.

With visibility being quite poor today, the Summit Ribs on the West Face of Aonach Mor can be a bit tricky to locate (they are much further along the Allt Daim than you may think), so here are some OS grid references for the popular ribs:

Golden Oldie: NN 18885 73018
Western Rib: NN 18947 72961
Daim Buttress: NN 18985 72916

This is what the Summit Ribs on the West Face of Aonach Mor can look like when the visibility is poor.

This is what the Summit Ribs on the West Face of Aonach Mor can look like when the visibility is poor.

On another, but related note, an interesting and promising article published on the Met Office blog is hinting that due to ‘sudden stratospheric warming’, winter conditions may well linger well into spring. http://blog.metoffice.gov.uk/2016/02/29/could-sudden-stratospheric-warming-bring-a-cold-start-to-spring/

It’s looking like a promising mid to late season of winter climbing!

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.

 

Stunning on The Ben: Tower Ridge & CMD

Nick had climbed Tower Ridge before, but last time he climbed it, views were in short supply, and he felt it would be great for Andy to experience one of Ben Nevis’ finest climbs, so that’s exactly what we did.  I knew that it would be busy, so we had an early (ish) start, which worked well, as we had a clear run most of the way, with no one snapping at our heels.

Conditions generally were nothing short of amazing, with very little wind, clear skies, and perfect conditions on the ridge all the way.  We slowed down a bit at the Eastern Traverse, but still topped out in good time, and so decided to continue round along the Carn Mor Dearg Arete to get the full Ben Nevis experience today, and with such good views, it proved to be well worthwhile!

I was expecting a few more teams out climbing today, but there definitely were some honey pots today: Orion Direct, Point 5 Gully, The Curtain and Ledge Route were all busy.  Other teams on North East Buttress, Hadrian’s Wall Direct, Mega Route X, Gemini and Waterfall Gully.

Lucy was out working for West Coast Mountain Guides too, and out with Clark and Jianwen.  They also were able to enjoy Ben Nevis in all it’s glory, and made an ascent of the Mountain Track, which they all thoroughly enjoyed.

Andy was out with Steve and Steve in Glencoe.  They climbed the brilliant Sron na Laraig, which he reported to be in fantastic conditions.

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.

Avoiding the worst of it: E Ridge of the N Buttress, Stob Ban

I thought that I had a bright idea of starting early this morning to then finish early, and be down before the thaw and rain hit this afternoon.  It turns out that Matt, who was out with Michael for their second day, had a brighter idea, and started shortly after us, ensuring there was a track all the way in to and along the East Ridge of the North Buttress of Stob Ban.  Work smart, not hard.

Nick had to leave us after yesterday, due to family commitments, so Keith and I set off for what we hoped would be a quick hit, before the worst of the rain and thaw hit this afternoon.  As we were first in the car park, we ended up ploughing our way, in what started off as clear and calm conditions, to the East Ridge, noting a number of avalanches that had clearly occurred recently out of the higher east facing gullies.  Fortunately, the approach to the East Ridge is relatively safe due to the lesser slope angles, lower altitude and opportunities to remain on and link ‘islands of safety’.

Having climbed a fair few harder routes, Keith flew up the route, but enjoyed the flowing nature and easier moves that the ridge presented.  On topping out, we decided to ‘bag the Munro’, so with goggles on (first time for me this year), we carefully made our way over the snowy crests and subsidiary tops, before reaching 999m.  The weather had turned by this point, with an increase in the winds and decreasing visibility, so we didn’t hang around and made a quick descent down the north ridge, closely followed by Matt and Michael.

Tim was out with Jamie, attempting Ben Nevis via the Mountain Track.  They did well to get to 1040m, but with deteriorating conditions made the right decision to leave the summit for another day.  Sometimes, the best decision in the mountains is to turnaround.

Rod and his team of mountaineers made a snowy and successful ascent of the East Ridge of Beinn A’Chaorainn, which is generally very well sheltered from strong W/SW winds.  Again, the approach is relatively safe, as a direct route to the ridge from the forestry tracks avoids any avalanche prone terrain.

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!