Alpine Stylin’ on School House Ridge, Ballachulish

Despite a rather unfavourable forecast, particularly following such a good spell of cold, and relatively calm weather, and the odd gust, today wasn’t bad at all.  I was out with Caroline and Donna, who are up for a couple of days to squeeze in as much winter mountaineering as possible.  With a rather colourful avalanche forecast, and dampening snow pack, we decided that School House Ridge (ENE Ridge) of Sgorr Bhan would give us a quick and safe access to the snowline, and maximise time on the ridge itself.

Caroline brought with her plenty of hill experience, but mostly in summer, so for her the day was all about becoming more confident in the use of crampons, and particularly on steeper terrain and beginning to understand basic ropework as she is working towards quite an amazing goal, to climb 5 of Europe’s 6 highest peaks.  I couldn’t name them!  More info on her Five summits and a Bike Ride Facebook Page.

Donna brought with her a solid platform of hillwalking, both in summer and winter, and rock climbing, so today was about transferring those skills to a winter mountaineering context.

School House Ridge is a very aesthetic ridge, that is almost completely uniform in it’s angle to the summit of Sgorr Bhan, with a number of short rocky steps.  Donna led the whole ridge, with Caroline seconding and we pitched the steeper sections and moved together on the easier sections in between, and so made good and steady progress.  On finishing the ridge, we decided that a visit to the summit would top the day off nicely, and despite some early gusts, the winds didn’t really amount to much.  A great first day.

The upper layers within the snow pack had become saturated by the afternoon, however, there was still a reasonable amount if ice on the decent path, down to about 450m.

Latest Scottish Winter Newsletter and Availability Update

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Plenty of snow!

After a rather frustrating start to winter, things have settled down.

There’s been no shortage of snow as of late, with quite regular snow fall down to the glens over the past couple of weeks.  All of which has given the mountains of the Highlands, and across the UK, a substantial winter coat.  What has been lacking is typical freeze/thaw cycles, so whilst the mountains are very white, the ice is taking a while to form, particularly on the higher cliffs, which have remained below freezing for some time now.  That said, Point 5 Gully has seen it’s first ascent, on Saturday, and reported to be climbed on reasonable, but not fat, ice.  Plenty of mixed climbs and classic ridges seeing ascents at the moment, including Tower Ridge and Castle Ridge on Ben Nevis, North Buttress on Stob Dearg (Buachaille Etive Mor) and a number of mixed climbs on Stob Coire nan Lochan.

So things are taking shape, and with a slight thaw moving in this weekend, this should only go to help consolidate things.  UK Weather Forecast have an interesting article, predicting that the mid-range weather (over the next 2-4 weeks) should be dominated by high pressure systems, giving us cold and dry conditions, and will be a pleasure to be out in, whether you are winter walking or climbing.

Availability Update

Below is an update of availability on our open walking and climbing courses.

It’s been a busy start to the season.  We have been out running privately guided days for a number of folk, both familiar and new faces.  Ken has been out with Tim, and they climbed Thompson’s Route, Ben Nevis, Morwind on Aonach Mor and Dorsal Arete on Stob Coire nan Lochan.  He has also guided Tower Ridge, Castle Ridge and Thompson’s Route again.  Meanwhile, Matt has been out and guided Raeburn’s Route and Sabbard Chimney, both on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glencoe.

We have limited availability for Private Guiding throughout the season, so please get in touch to see what we can do for you.  We can deliver winter skills tailored to your requirements, ascents of Ben Nevis via the mountain track through to guiding on Grade V+ winter climbs.

We also have limited availability on the following courses:

Winter Climbing Advanced 22-26 Feb £675

Winter Skills & Summits 15-19 Feb £450

Winter Skills & Summits  22-26 Feb £450

Winter Skills & Summits  7-11 March £450

Winter Skills & Summits  21-25 March £450

CIC Hut Week 6-11 March £750

CIC Hut Week 20-25 March £750

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If you have been guided or have received instruction in the past, either in the UK or the Alps, by clicking the Trip Advisor logo below, you will be able to submit a review of your experiences, which of course we will appreciate!

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Conditions Blog

The West Coast Mountain Guides blog will also be kept up-to-date throughout the winter season.

Please feel free to email us with your own conditions updates and pictures that we can then include on our blog.

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Introduction to Ben Nevis: Castle Ridge

It was very quiet on Ben Nevis today.  I was out with Arran, who had yet to experience winter climbing on ‘the Ben’, so today we rectified that by climbing the brilliant Castle Ridge.  The track up to the top car park had turned to slush, so even with winter tyres, we couldn’t quite make it to the top car park, and with tonight’s freezing levels dropping, it will be fun and games on the track tomorrow.

Anyway, back to the interesting stuff.  So as to minimise the risk of being caught by anything sliding out of either of the Castle Gullies, we made our way across from the foot of Carn Dearg Buttress, which also enabled Arran to catch a glimpse of some of the other cliffs on the north face.  The deep snow on the route was starting to soften lower down, in many instances making progress a bit easier, with the wetter snow giving a bit more resistance when stepped on.  A good freeze should really help, which should happen overnight.

Arran did well, and cruised his way up, whilst we looked at keeping thing slick but safe enough.  The crux high up, which is quite out of character to the rest of the route, and in a sensational position, gave Arran a good challenge, which he coped well with.  So, that was Arran’s first foray on one of the finest winter climbing venues in the UK.

Going back to Saturday, it turns out that the brave and clearly hardy team did climb Point 5 Gully, and reported that whilst the ice wasn’t fat, it was in reasonable condition.  Sometimes, you just have to stick your nose in it.

In other news… This link is well worth a read, the general gist being that high pressure should dominate over the next 2-4 weeks, which could well give us clear and cold nights, which would be nice.

Social day on East Ridge, North Buttress, Stob Ban

Nice social day on the East Ridge of the North Buttress of Stob Ban today.  I was working for and with good friend Scott Kirkhope today, between us, we had the pleasure of leading Angus, Gary, Tom and Gam.  For Tom and Gam, who I was with, it was their first winter experience, and for Angus and Gary, a chance for a nice day out, so the East Ridge of the North Buttress fitted the bill perfectly, with enough space to enjoy social belays, a mixture of varied terrain, and not another soul about.  We did see one lone walker on Sgurr a Mhaim, and that was it.

The approach did involve a fir bit of wading, particularly up to the buttress, but climbing conditions were great, with plenty of frozen turf and consolidating snow, and with next to no wind, and clear views all around, it has probably lured Tom and Gam into a false sense of security!  It’s not always quite like this, but when it is, it’s great! We topped out together, and enjoyed a snowy descent of the north ridge.

Matt was back out with Oli today, and they ventured back up to SCNL, where they climbed Scabbard Chimney.


Pedal to the Metal: Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis

Clear skies above Ben Nevis this morning, on our way to Tower Ridge.

Clear skies above Ben Nevis this morning.

I was out with Wes today, and with the choice of mid grade routes being limited, we decided to go for Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, a route he’s done in summer, but not yet in winter.  I knew from the start that a) conditions would be a bit tricky, with so much unconsolidated snow about, and b) it could be busy, so we had an early-ish start and kept the pedal on the metal all day.  Luckily, Wes is the sort of chap that likes to push himself.  We walked in with clear views to the summit, which we thought would remain with us for longer than they did.

Conditions on the route were a bit awkward, which is a bit of theme at the moment, with plenty of unconsolidated snow, making the going a bit tougher than usual I.e. hard to find axe placements.  But we kept the pace up throughout the day, and soon found ourselves at the Eastern Traverse, as the weather closed in a bit.  The traverse isn’t banked out yet, so whilst gear is hard to find with the amount of rime and snow about, it’s fairly straight forward, however, the Fallen Block Chimney is not quite buried, but would be tight enough that a big step out right is required.

Wes enjoyed Tower Gap, but perhaps more in retrospect, and was happy to finally find some névé to pull on in the exit gully.  A grand day out.  Plenty of teams on Ledge Route, at least one other on Tower Ridge, and one brave team heading onto Point 5 Gully, which was a torrent of spindrift in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Matt was out with Oli in Stob Coire nan Lochan, where they climbed a snowy Raeburn’s Route.

Oli swimming up Raeburn's Route

Oli swimming up Raeburn’s Route

and Phil & Lucy (our neighbors) were out too enjoying a snowy School House Ridge on Sgorr Bhan.


White Cliffs of Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe

I was back out with Ben today, working for Moran Mountain.  After Ben’s success of yesterday, and with strong easterly winds due, we decided to seek a bit of shelter in Coire nan Lochan, which is quite well enclosed by the summit and adjoining ridges.   From the road, with low cloud obscuring the views high up, it was hard to make out how wintry things were, and with steady drizzle and not particularly cold temperatures in the valley, neither of us were expecting things to be so white on gaining the corrie floor.

I don’t think I’ve seen the crags of Stob Coire nan Lochan so white before.  We didn’t get close enough to examine the rocks, more about that later, but it seemed to be from wet snow blown in on fresh SE winds.  The snow had started to consolidate nicely, and although there is far less snow than usual for this time of year, it did feel like a winter wonderland up there, and completely unexpected too.

Whilst gearing up to head up Broad Gully, Ben voiced that he wasn’t feeling on top of his game today, so despite some encouragement, and hints that he might be keen to continue and give it a go, we decided to leave it for another time.  In order to still make the most of the day, we traversed across to the broad ridge of Gearr Aonach (translation: the short ridge), and made a descent of the zig-zags (not wintry at all), which Ben enjoyed.   The snow line was at about 750m.

The long term forecasts are looking very promising, with some overdue snow coming in tonight and again early next week.  Plenty of light wind days in the pipeline too, brilliant!

Shaping up nicely! No. 3 Gully, Ben Nevis

#backtowork today, fortunately, I quite enjoy my office, Ben Nevis.  Today, I had the pleasure of introducing my office to Ben, who is preparing for a trip to Ecuador.  Following the recent thaws, it was quite apparent on the walk-in that Ben Nevis, as reliable as ever, was making a speedy recovery, with freezing levels down to 750m or so, a dusting of fresh snow and plenty of rime on the higher crags.

Ben had just finished a winter mountaineering course in the NW Highlands, with Martin Moran (who I was working for today), and was keen to get some additional mileage in, ideally on consolidated, firm snow, which hasn’t been particularly forthcoming this season so far.  Fortunately, the recent cold conditions on Ben Nevis had really firmed up the snow in Coire na Ciste, giving us the perfect snow to practice cramponning on.  We went in with a reasonably open mind, as Ben was slightly overwhelmed by the scale of the north face cliffs, but he soon found himself enjoying the steepish snow slopes leading up to the mouth of No. 3 Gully.  The snow within the gully was a bit more chopped up, and so easier to kick steps into, and Ben needed very little encouragement to press on to complete the gully, and in doing so, climbed his first route on the Ben.  Good going!  Happy with what he had achieved, we took a leisurely wander down the mountain track.

Plenty of the higher routes on Ben Nevis are shaping up well, with plenty of rime on the high cliffs, so the mixed routes are looking great and the ice in the higher drainage lines are forming nicely.  Quite a few folk making the most of the cold, dry conditions, with ascents of Tower Scoop, Good Friday Climb, Tower Ridge, No. 2 Gully, Green Gully, No. 3 Gully Buttress, Archangel and North Gully.

Blowing away the cobwebs: No. 2 Gully, Ben Nevis

When Steve asked me whether I fancied joining him and Duncan for a day on Ben Nevis, I knew that conditions weren’t going to be optimum for climbing anything steep, but that we’d have a fun day out none-the-less as it would be a day out with two good friends, regardless of the weather, conditions or route.  As we walked in, in the rain and wind, other teams were heading back out, clearly not overly inspired by the blackness of the crags visible from the CIC Hut, but despite a couple of moments of doubt, we pressed on and up into Coire na Ciste, with our fall back plan being an ascent of No. 2 Gully, which neither Steve or Duncan had climbed before.

The thaw that had arrived yesterday afternoon had clearly left a bit of a mark, as the ice, of which there is still plenty, was quite soft, wet and in need of a good freeze, but the snow slopes beneath No. 2 Gully were already starting to firm up, so we continued up to the mouth of the gully.  The climbing in the gully itself is quite straight forward and having heard that the cornice was next to non-existent, we soloed up.  As a teaching/introductory route, No. 2 Gully is great, it’s hugely atmospheric, being in a deep cleft, sheltered from the worst of the wind, but just as importantly, has a number of good belays and opportunities to place a variety of gear, which Steve was keen to investigate.

It didn’t take too long for us to top-out, and we nipped round and descended No. 3 Gully, which again, had no cornice.  On our way down, the crags were starting to rime up again as the freezing levels started to drop.  It turns out that I was right, and as expected, we did have a good day, more for the company than the climbing, which is fine by me!

Climbing conditions will continue to improve over the next few days, and it looks like we may receive a welcome dump of snow mid week.  Steeper mixed routes will come in very quickly, but may be quite icy.  There is quite a bit of ice around Goodeve’s Buttress, Raeburn’s Wall, No. 2 Gully Buttress, Comb Gully Buttress and The Comb, so we should also see some mid-grade ice routes come into condition quite soon.



Coached Leading: Broad Gully, Stob Coire nan Lochan

With Storm Frank looking to leave its mark on the UK through tonight and tomorrow, I was fortunately able to move tomorrow’s work, with Andrew and his wife Bethan to today, and listening to the rain and wind picking up now, I’m glad that they were able to swap days!

Both Andrew and Bethan have a good understanding of winter mountaineering, but they wanted to be coached whilst Andrew led and Bethan seconded, with a particular focus on placing and using rock anchors.  As they were staying in the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe, they were keen to make the most of the immediate hills, so we ventured up to Stob Coire nan Lochan, with a few other teams, including Rich and Hannah, who were back out again with their group from Bristol Uni.

On gaining the corrie floor, it was quite clear that only two snow gullies were complete, Boomerang and Broad, (that didn’t stop a team heading up a rather green looking Forked Gully), and so with only one mountaineering axe each, we opted for Broad Gully.  Broad Gully is a very straight forward grade I gully, which was perfect, as both Andrew and Bethan felt that there was no need to be on terrain beyond their comfort zones, enabling them to focus more on the ropework side of things.   We looked at a number of methods of building belays and made steady progress up the gully.  The winds had picked up by the time we topped out, so we made our way back down the same way.

Rich and Hannah and their group also climbed Broad Gully, and made the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan before descending its NW flank.  The winds were picking up quite a bit at valley level by the time we reached the cars.


Surprisingly snowy on Ledge Route, Ben Nevis

Yesterday was my first day of mountaineering work this winter.  I was working for Abacus Mountain Guides, and was joined by Sally, who was keen to observe a mountaineering day on Ben Nevis, and Amanda, who originally hails from South Africa, and had come up for the weekend from down south to reach the summit of Ben Nevis via a more technical route than the mountain track.  Ledge Route is often a great option, weaving an intricate line through some outstanding scenery, beneath imposing crags and buttresses, and above yawning gullies and snow laden corries, so that’s what we set out to do.

The forecast promised an improving picture as the day progressed, which was reassuring, as early morning brought with it strong winds and heavy rain down to sea level.  As soon as we gained the entrance to Coire na Ciste, things noticeably calmed down,  and we picked our way though a lot of fresh snow to the top of Moonlight Gully Buttress, before traversing across the bowl of No. 5 Gully and reaching the start of Ledge Route itself.

Amanda did exceptionally well, particularly as conditions underfoot weren’t easy with the sheer volume of soft snow sitting directly on the rocks, typical for early season, before a good firm base of snow has established.  Once on the plateau, we made our way over a mixture of scoured ground and the occasional snow drift to the summit, which was well rimed.   Whilst visibility was quite poor, the winds by this stage were far more gentle than earlier in the day.  We had a look at descending the Red Burn, which is starting to fill with snow, but soon changed our minds as it was slow going and ventured back onto the mountain track, which made for a far easier descent.

Very few people out and about, and climbing conditions wouldn’t have been great following a substantial thaw on Thursday, and a dumping of soft, wet snow on Friday before the ground had time to refreeze.  Another variable week of freeze/thaw cycles ahead, which will all help in the long run.

Don’t forget to let us know what you’ve been up to on the hills, as we’ll include any useful information and pictures on this blog.