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No shortage of snow! Golden Oldie, Aonach Mor

Please excuse the lack of blogs recently.  Hannah and I were away ski touring in the Ortler Alps, in Italy for a good chunk of this month, so will blog about it when I get the chance.  Generally great conditions, although the weather did deteriorate as the trip progressed.  Still, it was very nice to get plenty of skiing and summits under the belt.

I’m sure that most of you are well aware that winter is not just holding on with the very tips of its fingers, but has its hand firmly clenched around The Highlands, including coastal regions and islands, at the moment.  We’ve had a number of snow showers recently, down to sea level at times.

Today, Simon, Peter and I made the most of the current conditions, and made an ascent of Golden Oldie on the West Face of Aonach Mor. Both Simon and Peter have ambitions to scale higher peaks in the Alps and The Greater Ranges later on this year, and felt that squeezing in a trip up to Scotland would be useful preparation, not to mention fun in its own right.  They both cruised their way up, whilst paying attention to belays and ropework along the way, all of which will prove useful for their future trips.

The recent easterly winds have deposited quite a bit of snow on the Summit Ribs, ensuring good cover throughout.  The turf, particularly where exposed was nicely frozen too.  The gullies running parallel to Golden Oldie are quite laden with snow, and would give great ski descents at the moment, it’s just a shame that the lifts beyond the gondola aren’t running.  The summit plateau of Aonach Mor currently has much more snow on it than it did for all of winter, with the summit cairn only just visible at the moment.  Not another soul beyond the Snowgoose restaurant at the top station.

Looks like quite a bit more snow up high in the pipeline…

Today I was working for Atlas Mountaineering.

Soft-shell day: Ledge Route & Carn Mor Dearg Arête

Whilst southern England was getting battered by storm Katie, we enjoyed quite calm conditions up in The Highlands, so calm in fact that it was one of those rare ‘soft-shell days’, although we did get a few drops right at the end of the day.

I was out with Rob, who rather impressively, flew up last night from London, for a dose of winter mountaineering, before flying back this evening.  Talk about a quick hit!  Having not set foot on Ben Nevis before, he was keen to give the Carn Mor Dearg Arête a go, and with very little persuasion, we decided that to maximise the day we would head up Ledge Route, before taking in the summit of Ben Nevis, and descend via Carn Mor Dearg.

Not as quiet on the mountain today, with a number of teams venturing into both Coire na Ciste and Observatory Gully, however, only us and one other team on Ledge Route today.  The route generally had a good cover of snow, except of a thin patch above the Curtain.  It may be worth staying in No. 5 Gully for a bit longer at the moment, before traversing right to reach Ledge Route.  The rest of the route was very good.

The cloud, whilst thin, was enough to a) not give us too many views and b) trap heat in, so unfortunately, not many views from the summit, despite patches of blue sky.  We then continued round the Carn Mor Dearg Arête , which  had just enough snow on the crest to warrant crampons, although the snow was quite soft.  It did turn a bit wintry for a while during the afternoon, but didn’t last long.

It’s been an action packed 24hrs for Rob, who is now on his way to catch a delayed flight from Glasgow.  He’ll sleep well when he eventually gets home tonight!

Teams on Tower Ridge, SW Ridge, 1934 Route, The White Line and a soloist on Hadrian’s Wall amongst others.  Mixed reports as to how safe approaches were today, with at least one team backing away from routes on Goodeve’s Buttress…

 

Pays to start later! SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

The day started with the rain lashing against the windows, and a thick blanket of cloud lying just a few metres above sea level, however, with a forecast suggesting a huge improvement from about 9ish, Andy, Hazel and I had a leisurely start, which was just as well, as they were therefore able to enjoy their cooked breakfast at the Lime Tree this morning.  By the time we were walking into Ben Nevis, the clouds had already lifted, revealing a very white mountain.

Plan A was the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, which looked nice and white.  There was thin layer of windslab on the approach, but easily penetrable, down to the much older snow beneath.  The ridge was covered in fresh snow, so despite the lack of firm névé, was still very wintry. A bit of care was required with the odd loose block, but generally the climb relies on sinker hooks, and so didn’t require moves using loose blocks to make progress.

Andy and Hazel have mainly climbed ice when out in winter, so had to adapt some of their experiences to make the most of the cracks and tiny ledges for feet, as well as making the odd move with hands rather than axes.

It was eerily quiet on Ben Nevis today, with one team who headed round to NE Buttress, a set of tracks to and from the base of Hadrian’s Wall, one team who headed up to The Cascade and a couple of teams looking at skills in Coire na Ciste.  With the freezing level remaining at 800m or so for the next wee while, the snow will continue to consolidate, and should give good climbing conditions this week… Winter continues!

Above the clouds on Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis

If you were in Fort William today, you would have spent most of the day under a grey sky, however, it was a very different world up on Ben Nevis today.  The day did start off quite clear, but soon, the clouds rolled in, filling the glens, however, Ricky and I, along with almost everyone else on Ben Nevis today managed to remain above the clouds for much of the day and enjoyed yet another day of sunshine and views for miles around, although today very few peaks were poking through the thick band of cloud.

We climbed Tower Ridge in little more than softshells and a base layer.  The route has lost a lot of snow over the past week, but what is left, which is still significant, is bullet hard in places, and crampons were worn throughout.  The exit from Douglas Gap, most of the steeper steps on the Little Tower and Tower Gap were largely dry.

We had good views of climbers in Observatory Gully, Hadrian’s Wall, Smith’s and Tower Scoop were seeing a fair bit of traffic, Indicator Wall had one team on it, who were linking up the normal start with the second pitch of the R/H variation.  A team were on the second pitch of Point 5 Gully, but were seen retreating a little while later.  Tower Gully is steep at the top, but is being used in both ascent and descent, although care required, as a slip here would be bad news.

In Coire na Ciste, Tim was out with Martin.  They climbed Green Gully, and reported good conditions and no crowds either.  A team were in Glover’s Chimney, and seemed to be bombarded occasionally with falling ice.

Hannah and Steve were also enjoying being above the clouds with their group of 10 on the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. The crest is fairly bare of snow now, and the group didn’t need to use crampons until the final slopes up to the summit of Ben Nevis, which is now a meter higher, and stands at 1345m due to a recalculation carried out by Ordnance Survey.

Looking across from the CMD towards the north face of Ben Nevis

Looking across from the CMD towards the north face of Ben Nevis

Finally, Mark was out delivering a day of crevasse rescue and expedition skills to James and Rosy.  They were on Stob Coire nan Lochan today.

I’m off for our second CIC Hut Week tomorrow, fortunately things are looking to turn a bit more wintry, so it’s looking like a promising week ahead.  I’ll not blog through the week, but will post regular updates on our Facebook page.

 

Another stunning day: Dorsal Arete, Glencoe

It’s been another stunning day in the Outdoor Capital of the UK, with wall to wall sunshine, firm snow and amazing, it was quite quiet on the hills today.

I was back out with Kevin and John, for their final day of coached leading, and we went to Stob Coire nan Lochan to climb Dorsal Arete, which I had heard was still in good nick.  It was.

We were the first of only a few teams in the corrie, and therefore had Dorsal Arete mostly to ourselves, the only others to climb the crest were Si and Becky (also part of Team Lowe Alpine), who soloed past with skis on their back, on their way to find a nice descent off Bidean.  What a great day for it!

The snow had once again firmed up overnight, and remained firm where in the shade, giving secure climbing all the way.  With the crux fin just in the sunshine, it would have been a shame to miss it out on such a day, so we took that in too, adding in some variety to an already great route.

It’s been a productive couple of days for Kevin and John, who have really got to grips with pitched climbing.  We’ve been able to look at a variety of belays and runner placements, they’ve now got a good understanding now of ropework and knots, and we’ve climbed two brilliant routes.

Very little in condition on Stob Coire nan Lochan now, Boomerang Gully looked ok, Langsam might be climbable, Forked, Broad and North Gullies are all complete.

 

Coached lead climbing: No. 2 Gully, Ben Nevis

With a blocking high pressure now sitting firmly over the UK, we’re into a pattern of warm days and cool nights, which means that the snow and ice that remains, of which there is still lots on Ben Nevis, will firm up overnight, and give great snow and ice climbing, particularly earlier in the day.  East facing slopes that catch the early morning sun are probably worth avoiding this week.

Kevin and John have bags of winter walking experience, and are looking to expand their comfort zones, and gain the skills required to tackle more adventurous mountaineering routes in winter, so today we headed up high on Ben Nevis, to No. 2 Gully, to get them on the sharp end and for me to coach them en route.

The snow was still slightly soft lower down, but fortunately, a set of tracks from yesterday took us right up to the foot of Comb Gully Buttress, from where Kevin and John took it in turn to lead pitches.  We were able to look at a variety of belays, including equalised ice screws, nut belays, abalakov threads and a bucket seat backed up with a reinforced axe belay on the plateau.  The cornice was easily outflanked on the left, and involved climbing into a funky trench formed by a crack between the cornice, which was now quite stable, and the plateau.

A great first winter climb on Ben Nevis for the two, and hopefully the first of many!

Conditions, all things considering, were far from bad.  There’s still plenty to go at up high in Coire na Ciste, including Italian Right Hand, Garadh Gully, Glover’s Chimney, The Gutter, The White Line, The Cascade, No. 2 Gully Buttress, Comb Gully Buttress, Comb Gully, Green Gully and Two Step Corner looked complete from a distance.  Some of the ice lines on Raeburn’s Wall still look good too.

Other teams on Orion Face Direct, Hadrian’s and Tower Ridge.

There are hints that cooler conditions will return next week: www.ukweatherforecast.co.uk/

 

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.

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.