Sunday, 5 April 2015

Snow Cover in Lochaber 2.

In January 2012 I wrote a blog post entitled "Snow cover in Lochaber". This proved to be one of the most popular posts on my blog. Unfortunately after I had written about how promising a start to the winter it had been in that post, it all turned a bit mild. I think that March was the mildest on record. I hope therefore I am not tempting fate with this post.....

Last winter was very snowy at higher levels. Despite a mild spring, summer and autumn, there were a good number of snowpatch survivals including Aonach Mor, Aonach Beag, Creag Meagaidh and several on Ben Nevis. I wrote a few blog posts about visiting some of these patches last autumn. The single biggest contributing factor to snowpack survival is how much snow accumulates in appropriate locations during the winter. As we are roughly around the time of year that snow depths reach their maximum in these locations, I thought it would be a good time to compare the state of this years snow accumulations to previous years.

The South Side of Coire an Lochan in August showing the two snopatches that sometimes survive on Aonach Mor. 
Shown below are pictures taken from roughly the same location of south side of Coire an Lochan of Aonach Mor in March/April for the every year going back to 2008 (apologies for the poor quality of some of the older pictures). The view in August with two snow patches that sometimes survive is shown above. Although most years snow peaks around March/April, this was not the case for 2012 and 2014 when snow depth likely peaked earlier in the season. I also include a picture from February 2014 showing what is probably the most snow I have seen in the Coire. 

As the pictures show, this year is way ahead of most other years, a little ahead of 2008 and in appearance similar to April 2014. However, I suspect that the snow in April 2014 was a bit denser, as it had thawed and consolidated significantly by the time the picture was taken. Therefore, I would say that in real terms we are slightly behind last year. These are, of course, pictures of just one location. Last year there was definitely a significantly more snow in terms of overall mountain coverage. However this year there are a few specific locations, the top of Easy Gully for example, where I would say that there is more snow this year.

Both 2008 and 2014 were good snowpatches seasons. As there is comparable amounts of snow in the correct locations this year, and the larger snowpatches have retained a large icy heart from last year, it is a promising start to the snowpatch season for the hills on the West Coast. This however, is not the case of the Cairngorms which have not received very much snow this winter.

For some other good snow pictures, there was a recent post of the SAIS Lochaber blog where pictures taken in summer and this winter are compared. See

4th April 2015

18th April 2014

19th Feb 2014

30th March 2013

23rd March 2012

5th April 2011

10th April 2010

5th April 2009

20th March 2008

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Piece Maker

The line of The Piece Maker. 

The text message said "Meet you at the hut.....Also would you be able 2 bring some food as I pretty low for tomorrow". I had arranged to climb with Iain who was staying up at the CIC hut. He had rack and ropes up there but, as the text message suggested, he did not have much food. Instead of organising climbing equipment that evening, I spent it organising a large pile of cheese and jam sandwiches and an assortment of other tasty things. 

Iain on the crux pitch.

The next morning, sandwiches delivered at the hut, we headed up Observatory Gully. Iain had a line he was keen to try up the wall to the right of a Dave MacLeod route called The Angry Chair. I thought it looked desperate, and it was. Iain led the first pitch which was the crux. It took a steep mixed corner, traversed left to a niche, and then went up through a bulge to a belay. I struggled to second it. The next pitched looked easier, but potentially quite scary and again I was correct. It was technically easier, but thinly iced, and I ran out of bravery after about 15 metres, below a steep bold thinly iced corner. I came down and Iain did it. However, it did mean I got to lead a nice pitch up some steep icy steps which took us to just below the Eastern Traverse. A hundred metre moving together pitch then took us up onto Tower Ridge and then the top for a lovely sunset. 

Iain named the route The Piece Maker as a counter to The Angry Chair, and as a response to my sandwich delivery. I may not have been the bravest climber on the day, but I did feel like I made pretty tasty sandwiches (Top Sandwich Tip; if you toast your bread before you make the sandwiches they are a bit more rigid, and tend to get squashed less in your rucsac).

Trying to restore some honour by leading the final pitch. 

The view from the top of Tower Ridge when we topped out. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Fly Direct

 Ski Touring on Creag Meagaidh. Lots of ice on Pinnacle Buttress, but getting in there on foot that day would have been pretty hard work.  

The day after climbing The Shield Direct I went for a ski tour on Creag Meagaidh with my friends Suzie and Finn. We did a circuit which went into Coire Ardair, up to The Window, round the top and then down via Sron a Ghoire. It ws a nice circuit with a lovely decent. What caught my eye though was the amount of ice on the Pinnacle Face. I immediately thought of The Fly Direct. This was one of those classic winter routes which I had heard about since I started climbing, and had always wanted to do, but had never seen in condition. In fact I had not heard of anybody climbing it for years. However, at the time it would have been epic to get into Coire Ardair on foot because of the amount of soft snow and I had already arranged to head north to climb with Iain Small on Skye the next day (which as described in my last post proved to be a bit soggy)

After Skye the weather turned a bit milder and I had about a weeks worth of work. However later in the week the temperature dropped, I had a day off and Iain was keen to get out again. We weren't sure if The Fly Direct would still be there, but an up-to-date picture on the SAIS Creag Meagaidh blog suggested it might be worth a look. At the last minute Uisdean Hawthorn decided to join us. 

Iain running the first two pitches together. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures from higher up the route due to a slight camera malfunction. 

Early in the morning I found myself walking into Coire Ardair with Iain and Uisdean. The deep soft snow what had been there the previous week and consolidated, and walking conditions were good. Reaching the crag, the temperature was  hovering around freezing. A streak of ice ran all the way down the route and it looked to be in good condition. Iain geared up and headed off up the first pitch. The ice was great apart from a 25ft section where it went really cruddy. There was not very much gear, and it was tricky enough for Iain to start muttering to himself. However, he kept going, running the first two pitches together to reach  to fine block belay. I led the next pitch, a shallow ice gully which felt like a felt like a shallower, steeper version of the nearby Smiths Gully. The ice was generally pretty good.  Uisdean then led a rope stretching pitch to a belay below the final icefall. The ice was good and the final ice fall did not slow Iain down much.

Rambling back down the Raeburn's Gully, Iain and Usidean spent a fair bit of time looking at the line of Excasty, a fine looking grade VIII between The Fly Direct and Smith's. They decided to stash kit in the coire, and returned the next day to to climb it. I had committed to another stint of work starting the next day so could not join them.  However, doing The Fly Direct on my one day off felt quite satisfying.

A wider view of Iain running the first two pitches of The Fly Direct together

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Soggy Skye

Rambling our way up we found this impressive and fun chimney, so we climbed it.  

Water pouring of the ice. Things would have been superb if it had been 5 degrees colder. Unfortunately it was not. 

Looking back along the ridge. Not too bad a view. 

A few days after the Shield Direct, Iain Small and myself decided to take a gamble and head up to Skye. It had been cold, and we thought that there might be some good ice. The forecast was for it to turn slight milder, but with the freezing level forecast to be around 600m we thought that things higher up would be okay and it would be worth the gamble.

So after a good day's ski touring (which I will write about later) I headed up and dossed in the care near Kyle of Lochalsh. The alarm went off at five, and after breakfast in bed (well my sleeping bag),  I stepped outside to some sub-tropical air. The snow that had been on the ground when I had parked up the previous night had gone. It was also drizzling. Iain appeared from accommodation (his car). It did not look to good, we grumbled a bit but decided we might as well go and have a look.

Things were a bit more promising an hour later at the car park. Although mild, it had stopped drizzling and we started walking. As it grew light ,a a bit of whiteness on the higher crags tempted us on. Finally reaching the crag we found some amazing looking ice lines which were unfortunately pouring with water. Iain hit the ice, slush spattered off, it was not a day for hard climbing.

After a bit of faffing and wondering what to do, we rambled up on to the ridge in a sort of mountaineering style, finding quite a cool 60 metre grade IV chimney which we climbed (an existing route, which I have forgotten the name of). This took us up on the ridge just as it cleared, giving us  great views down into Loch Coruisk.  We wandered down nice and early, reaching the car just before the rain came on. Although we didn't get to climbed what we had planned, it was nice to see the place, and get up onto the ridge in winter. I am certainly inspired to return when hopefully all the drools of ice return and are not rapidly melting.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Shield Direct

Myself on the first pitch of the Shield Direct, the pitch I thought I would never be brave enough to climb. In fact it was thick enough for ice screws and was not actually too bold. 

The Shield Direct was a route that I have always looked at, but never thought that I would do. The route requires on ice on the initial corner. The front cover of the old Scottish winter climbs guide shows a picture of Andy Forsyth on the initial corner. The ice was thick enough to climbing, but not for ice screws. It looked terrifying! Almost 20 years ago I remember speaking to someone who had been there when a team had tried the route.  His description of their attempt, and the other stories I had heard, made it sound even worse. The route was given VII, 7 in the guide, but it sounded much harder than that.

I know of two ascents of the route in the past ten years. One in February 2005 when I was living in Switzerland, and the other in March 2014 when I was on a ski touring holiday to Switzerland. Over the past ten years I have walked into the CIC hut well over a hundred times in winter.  Every time my eyes have been draw up to the initial corner, there never seemed to be any ice there. This was almost a relief, I had a good excuse not to get on the pitch.

I was walking into the Ben a few weeks ago. I had tagged along with another pair to do a pleasant grade V and we had had a late start. On the way in I was pointing out some routes, and mentioned The Shield Direct. The response to this was "You mean where the person in red is". I looked more carefully and was shocked, there was someone at the top of the first pitch. However, lots of things made an attempt that day unsuitable, and so we headed round and braved the spindrift on Boomer Requiem.

The next day the weather turned mild, had I missed my chance? Fortunately it slowly cooled down over the next few days. The next week I had a few days off, I wanted to arrange a climbing partner for the route, but everybody seemed to have other plans. Was I going to miss a second chance at this route?  Then a client cancelled,  and suddenly my flatmate Guy had Tuesday off as well.  It was all falling into place.

However, at 6am on Tuesday morning things were not looking quite as hopeful. We were wallowing up to the CIC hut is a blizzard. We were wading up to our knees for long distances, and I was waist deep in fresh snow at times. Was this unexpected weather going to ruin my chance to do this route?  As we approached the route fortunately things began to clear up. But by then a team had overtaken us, and were milling around the base of Carn Dearg. Were they going to get on it before us? Some quick walking, even quicker gearing up, a quick spud to see who got to lead the first pitch (which I won) and I was ready to go start climbing before them (sorry Ali, but I was really keen get on the route).

Once I pulled on everything seemed to go well. The climbing was great, interesting and varied. The first pitch was not nearly as scary as I expected, and Guy made made quick work of the tricky chimney above. I led another gradually easing pitch and then Guy a tricky insecure mixed pitch which led to easier ground and eventually Ledge Route. That was The Shield Direct done, the route I had really wanted to do, but never thought that I would do, had been worth waiting for.

It received at least 6 ascents during that period, which may well be more than it had during it's previous 35 year existence as a winter route. I wonder when it will next be climbed?

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Having the Ming

Myself on, or a least somewhere near, the top pitch of Inclination. We did not take a guide book and my memory of where the route went at the top was not perfect.

To me winter climbing is more about the situation than the necessarily having to do something at my limit. It is about watching and making the most of the weather and conditions. It is fair to say that this winter so far has not been the greatest in terms of winter conditions or weather. I have only manage out climbing three times so far, and on two of those days I have made the most of some pretty wild conditions

Before Christmas I did Inclination in Glen Coe. I had done this route before back in about 2002. Although the crag had been frozen at the time, it had been pretty black, and had always felt slightly guilty about climbing it in those conditions. This time however, it was properly wintery with some quite wild weather particularly as we topped out.  Getting down to the car, it felt like honour had been restored.

Next up just after Christmas I did Kellets North Wall route on Ben Nevis with Murdoch. However this was quite a nice day, so does not fit with the theme of this post, so might try and write about this in a future post.

Today the weather forecast was crap, but myself, Guy Steven and Paul Swail (Paul's description of the day can be seen here) decided to head out anyway. The weather turned out to be just as bad as forecast.We did The Great Chimney on the side of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis. At grade IV,5 it was not exactly the hardest route I have done, but it was satisfying. For me the experience of battling up and easier route in wild conditions can be just as enjoyable as a hard route on a good day. The pictures below should give you a feeling for the day.

Walking in, thinking perhaps it will be a bit nicer round the corner. It wasn't!

Guy enjoying a gap between spindrift avalanches. 

Myself truly having the ming near the top. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Long Terms Goals (8a on-sight)

Sports climbing in Spain is quite pleasant really. Jack from London redpoints his 7c+ project at Margalef  while I enjoy the sunshine and cast (even if I do say so myself) a rather fine shadow onto the crag.

This autumn I have been on a couple of sports climbing trips to Spain. I enjoy autumnal sports climbing trips, it gives me the opportunity to relax, do some good climbing and enjoy some sunshine before the not-so-sunny Lochaber winter.

This year I visited some great crags in areas such as Rodellar, Margalef and Chulilla. I won't go into the details of exactly which routes I did where, as I think I would struggle to make it very interesting. It would turn into a bit of a list; I went to this crag, tried this route, got up it or fell off, blah, blah, blah. To me, the most memorable articles I have read about sports climbing, are not really about sports climbing, they are about personal experiences which happen to involve sports climbing. I am going to write briefly about my experiences with a certain type of sports route, one that is given grade 8a.

Rest days are the best days. Tea, pancakes, a good book (or four) and some sunshine made for some very pleasant rest days. 

A wise friend of mine once said "Sports climbing only becomes fun when you have to try really hard". This is something I agree with. In other aspects of climbing I am often happy to do easier routes, to relax and enjoy the situation and the movement over rock. However, with sports climbing I tend to be pretty keen to chose routes that I have to try a bit harder on. Sports climbing, by it's very nature, tends to focus on technical difficulty rather than the seriousness aspect which can be a significant in other areas of climbing. In fact it is often safer to fall off hard sports routes than easier ones, as harder routes tend to be steeper and thus the fall cleaner. Due to this focus on difficulty, I find the emphasis on grades to be larger in sports climbing than in other forms of climbing.  Notice that, a sort of ranking system based on the grades, exists for sports climbing and bouldering, but thankfully not for traditional climbing or mountaineering.

Louisa, my climbing partner in Chulilla, on-sighting Plan Z. This route definitely stretched her comfort zone, but she pushed on, clipped that chains, and was satisfied afterwards. 

I remember a long time ago (about ten years ago at a guess) my friend Es asked me about my aims in sports climbing when we were walking out from the Tunnel Wall in Glen Coe. I answered that one day I would like to on-sight 8a. At the time, this seemed pretty unlikely, I think the hardest sports route I had climbed on-sighted at that time was around 7a+, 8a's felt ridiculously hard. I felt a bit nervous saying this aim out aloud, it seemed unlikely I could ever be that good. Now, I am not naturally strong or technically gifted, but I can work hard, be tenacious and stick with things. For the past ten years I have worked hard on my climbing, pushed through various plateaus, and slowly but steady got better.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to try to on-sight my first 8a. I tied in and nervously pulled on to a route called La Boca de la Voz, in Chulilla, Spain. Through the easier bottom section I got in the flow, climbing almost without conscience thought, a good place to be for a hard route. The first crux involved some large moves between okay holds, but with very poor foot holds. It felt like my feet should have popped off, but they didn't, so I kept on slapping. I sort of surprised myself by reaching some good hold above and an okay rest above. The second crux section was above, although not as powerful, it was much longer and very sustained and tenuous. Every move was a battle to stay on, but somehow I did, inching my way higher. Eventually I got a good pocket, and the chain was there within reach. Reaching up to clip the chain felt like quite a profound moment in my climbing career.
A Spaniard on the lower section of  La Boca de la Voz.

Whether or not La Boca de la Voz would get the same grade in this country I don't know. It certainly felt like it as a significant step up from all the other 7c+'s I had done in the area, so am happy to take the tick.  It certainly left me feeling pretty drained, I spent most the rest of the day starring blankly into the middle distance.

Now am I trying to imply I am particularly good at sports climbing. In Spain there are thousands of men, women and children on-sighting 8a and harder all the time. In fact Dmitry, a Russian who was staying in the same refugio as us, climbed this route (probably on-sight) in the dark with his head torch to get the clips backs. Nor I am not trying to say anything deep or profound. I went to Spain, tried hard, climbed well (for me), did some great routes and by on-sighting this particular route achieved a long held goal of mine.  I found this very satisfying, and something that everybody whose has climbed any route that has every really stretched them can relate to.