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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!

Great (Valentine’s) day on North East Buttress, Ben Nevis

Rob and Dave were keen for something longer and harder than the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder for today, so for two fit chaps, who have a fair bit of alpine climbing under their belt, and all of us wanting to avoid avalanche hazards on westerly aspects, North East Buttress seemed to tick all the right boxes.

I was pleasantly surprised to find no one else heading up that way this morning, giving us pole position on the route.  As it turned out, we were the only ones in that race today, which was fine by me.  The approach slopes were reasonably scoured, and sported some raised footprints, a good indicator that snow had been eroded by the winds on that slope.

We were soon into proper climbing terrain, and with the snow still mostly unconsolidated, a bit of care was required with axe and crampon placements.  Both Rob and Dave quickly got to grips with the need for efficiency at the belays, so we made good progress up the buttress.

The chaps struggled a bit with the notorious Man Trap, a short but slightly over-hanging wall, with very limited axe placements and poor, sloping foot placements, but cruised the 40 Foot Corner, which today had ok snow on the ledges, but absolutely no chance for any gear due to a thin layer of ice.

It’s been a great couple of days with Rob and Dave, who have expanded their comfort zones and tackled possibly the best route of it’s grade on Ben Nevis.  What a great way for us all to spend Valentine’s Day!

Hannah and Lena were also hard at work, on Aonach Mor, delivering a day of skills to 8 members of the Wessex Mountaineering Club.  They are up for a week, and were after a one day introductory day, so that they can practice their new found skills and be more self-reliant for the rest of their time up here.

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.

 

Mont Blanc prep on Ledge Route, Han on Comb Gully

After three days of brilliant personal climbing, it was back to work for me today.  I was out with Conrad, who has an upcoming trip to Mont Blanc this summer, and wanted an MOT to see where he was at in terms of preparing for the highest peak in the Alps.  After a rather eventful start, with my van getting stuck on the Ben track (thanks to all those who helped!), we made our way up to Ledge Route.  For Conrad, it was his first experience of the mountaineering side of Ben Nevis, a world away from the pony track, which he had been up before in summer.

We made swift progress upwards, looking at some of the ropework he’ll need when in the Alps, and soon found ourselves on the summit plateau.  With plenty of time left in the day and to get further practise in, we descended No.4 Gully, shot over to the Douglas Boulder and made a traverse of the west and east gullies.

Hannah was out with Steven on a day of play.  They decided to climb Comb Gully, which they said was in sporting nick… great axes, not so great for ice screws.  They descended Ledge Route as neither of them had been up or down it before in winter.

Quite busy on the mountain today, with teams on Castle Ridge, Waterfall Gully (first pitch looks good), Wendigo (first pitch doesn’t look great), Central Gullies of Creag Coire na Ciste, Une Journee Ordinaire, plenty of folk around Thompson’s/No. 3 Gully Buttress, White Line & Beam Me Up Scottie, Vanishing Gully (still looked quite thin), Tower Ridge and Great Chimney.  Observatory Gully seemed very quiet.

I got back to find that my van had been winched out and left in the top car park, so huge thanks to Mike Pescod and Rob Skinner for making it happen!

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.

 

Pinnacle Arete with direct variation, Ben Nevis

Wow, what a contrast today was compared to the past few days/weeks/months.  Dot, Steve and I enjoyed a completely still and cloudless walk-in to Ben Nevis, something that seems to be a rarity at the moment.  We also all had a day off, which too seems to be a rarity at the moment. With a few options in mind we walked into Coire na Ciste, but on seeing the avalanche debris and amount of snow and potential windslab on the N/NW aspects, we decided to have a look at a direct version of Pinnacle Arete (a route that non of us had climbed before, or the original line for that matter).

The first pitch was as per the original line, which Steve led, however, the direct variation, which isn’t really much more direct than the original line, forks left and sticks more to the crest, and made it’s way up a short, pokey pitch which involved tenuous climbing on awkward slabs and not the greatest of axe placements, which I led, before Steve took over and thugged his way up an awkward, short, steep but well protected off-width chimney, with good axe placements on the few small chockstones. Overall V,6/7?

This brought us out above The Clanger, from where quite a bit of easier ground (grade II/III) took us to the plateau.  The clag did come in during the afternoon, but considering the weather of late, it was a very pleasant day to be out, and possibly a second ascent of the direct variation.

A few other teams out and about, on West Gully of the Douglas Boulder, Tower Ridge, Green Gully, what looked to be the upper pitches of The Banshee and Slab Climb.

 

East Ridge, Stob Ban & Winter Skills

After a busy week running a Winter Mountaineering Course for Moran Mountain in the NW Highlands, I was back on home turf today with Mike & Tony.

Our plan A was to catch the gondola at Nevis Range this morning, along with a few other hopefuls, but the strong winds put a quick lid on that plan, so we headed round to Glen Nevis and made our way up to the East Ridge of the North Buttress of Stob Ban.  There was a layer of saturated thawed snow sitting beneath a layer of freshly deposited snow on the approach, and the  turf lower down was still a bit soggy, but improved with height, particularly where exposed.  The climbing itself was as good as ever, giving a nice variety of situations, which Mike and Tony enjoyed.  We were somewhat exposed to the SE winds, but besides some blowing spindrift, the winds didn’t hinder our progress.  One team of two ventured up towards South Gully, but turned around, and one other team were making their way to the base of the route quite late in the morning, other than that it was very quiet.  The main north ridge of Stob Ban was quiet sheltered, so we made the most of the day by ticking off the Munro, before descending the north ridge.

Low down on the East Ridge

Low down on the East Ridge

 

On the crux

On the crux

 

On the summit of Stob Ban

On the summit of Stob Ban

Tim was out running the first of two skills days with Claudia and Pavel.  They had caught the overnight sleeper train from London, so with a late start, they visited the impressive north face of Ben Nevis and were introduced to some core winter skills, in between the gusts!  Their day today must have felt a million miles away from this time yesterday!

Dave was also out running an introductory winter hill day, with Mark, Reece and Louise.  For their first winter hill day, they visited Buachaille Etive Beag in Glencoe, and guess what, battled with the wind.  They did have a good day, and started getting to grips with the necessary skills required to explore the hills in winter.

On Buachaille Etive Beag

On Buachaille Etive Beag

 

Traverse of Beinn Alligin & School House Ridge.

Today, Tom was out working for West Coast Mountain Guides, with Ali, Gary, James and Matt. They climbed the brilliant mountaineering outing ‘School house Ridge’ in Glencoe. Looks like they had a great day, and a brilliant weather window to boots.

Meanwhile, I was out running day one of a mountaineering course in the NW Highlands for Moran Mountain. We made a classic traverse of Beinn Alligin, and didn’t see another soul all day.

Konrad was also out with Adele and William, they enjoyed some mixed climbing on the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder on Ben Nevis.

Storm Henry will be gracing us tomorrow, but the thaw doesn’t look to be too severe, and will therefore really help with the building of some well needed ice.

 

Eastern Slant & North Buttress, Glencoe

With another day of strong westerly winds on the cards, Adele, William and I climbed Eastern Slant on Far East Buttress on Aoanch Dubh, which gave us reasonable shelter from the winds, which were strong enough to repel a few teams heading up to the higher cliffs of Stob Coire nan Lochan.

For Adele and William, it was their first taste of mixed climbing, and although some of the turf wasn’t quite fully frozen, the route lent itself well to our objectives, giving three varied pitches of interesting climbing, with a thought provoking crux chimney right at the end.

Meanwhile, further up the glen, Matt was out with Oli again, and the made their way up North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor, which again with it being low down on the mountain, and on a NE aspect, was protected from the worst of the winds.

Winter returns to The Highlands

Yesterday was wet, and there was almost nothing other than the calender date to hint that it was winter.  I was out working for High Mountain Guides, with Grant, and we enjoyed, no really, we did, a wet and snow free Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor, in Glencoe.  It was well sheltered from the strong southerly winds.  On topping out, we braced ourselves, and made our way over to and down Coire na Tulaich.  The torrents coming down the north face of the Three Sisters was quite impressive!

Wet, wet, wet, I felt it in my fingers and my toes.

Wet, wet, wet, I felt it in my fingers and my toes.

Fresh overnight and early morning snow magically, and thankfully, converted the hills back to their winter garb, and with a calm start,things were looking far more promising. Grant and I took the gondola up and ventured round to the West Face of Aonach Mor, our intentions were to climb Golden Oldie, however, not feeling on top of his game, Grant decided that climbing might be pushing it a bit, so we headed back along the Allt Daim and back up to Nevis Range.

Summit Ribs on the West Face of Aonach Mor

Summit Ribs on the West Face of Aonach Mor

Meanwhile, Chris was out with Tim on Ben Nevis, which again, had recovered reasonably well, given the short recovery time.  He climbed No. 3 Gully Buttress.  Plenty of steeper lines were getting climbed by the BMC International Meet teams, who after the past couple of sub-optimal days, must have been chomping at the bit.

Early morning light on Ben Nevis

Early morning light on Ben Nevis (Photo: Chris Thorne)

 

Welcome snow on Ben Nevis (Photo: Chris Thorne)

Welcome snow on Ben Nevis (Photo: Chris Thorne)

 

Reasonable climbing conditions (Photo: Chris Thorne)

Reasonable climbing conditions (Photo: Chris Thorne)

Finally, Hannah, along with Scott, were out working with students on the Adventure Tourism Management degree at the University of Highland & Islands.  They looked at the planning of a winter hill day, and put their plan into action by going for a journey around the Nid Ridge area of Aonach Mor, looking at various winter skills en route.

Good views from Nevis Range (Photos: Scott Kirkhope)

Good views from Nevis Range (Photos: Scott Kirkhope)

 

Winter journeying (photo: Scott Kirkhope)

Winter journeying (photo: Scott Kirkhope)