Thursday, 27 August 2015

Snow Patch Surveying

Iain enjoying the translucent light in the Point Five Gully snow Tunnel. 
Last Friday (the 21st of August) I was again up on the North Face of Ben Nevis to do some surveying. This time I was helping with the Ben Nevis part of the annual Scottish snowpatch survey.
The Scottish snowpatch survey occurs each year in mid/late August,and basically involves people wandering around the hills counting and measuring the remaining snowpatches. I have been involved most years since 2008, and it is something I have written about on my blog a few times. This year I was joined by three fellow snowpatch enthusiasts; Iain Cameron, Mark Atkinson and Al Todd.

As expected given the snowy winter and cool spring/summer, there was a lot of snow on the Ben. In fact there was far more than I had seen at this time of the year before, you would probably have to go back to 1994 to find a time when there was a comparable amount of snow on the hill at this time of year. 
The Observatory Gully patch is not small. The tiny green/black dot is a person. 
The biggest patch of snow on the hill (and quite possibly the biggest in Scotland at the moment) was at the top of Observatory Gully. This is the most permanent patch of snow in the Lochaber area, with snow having been here continuously since November 2006. This year it was huge, hundreds of meters from top to toe.  In fact the toe of the patch was at about 1130 metres, and you could have walked on snow all the way into Gardyloo gully, or across and up to the top of Tower Gully at 1340 metres. The depth of the centre of the patch could only be guessed at, but greater than 15 metres seems reasonable. This patch certainly won't be disappearing this year.

The edge of the Point Five Gully Patch. Not a shallow patch of snow, but probably not as deep as the Observatory Gully Patch.
We then headed down to the patch at the base of Point Five Gully. This patch was about 70 metres long, and perhaps a bit more width wise. The stream that runs down Point Five Gully had formed a tunnel through the centre of the patch. Donning headtorches (as it was very dark in the middle) we went for an explore, and managed to scramble all the way through. At the top we were able to get an idea of the great depth of the snow, again it is very unlikely this patch is going to disappear this year.

Iain near the center of the Point Five Gully Patch it was pitch black. Headtorches were required for a full traverse, fortunately we had two between the four of us.  
We finished off with the zero Gully snow patch. This is currently a comparable size to this time last year. Last year it survived for the first time in a long time (since 2001 or 1994). Although I would not say this patch is guaranteed to survive this year, I think it is fairly likely. It will depend a lot on the weather through the autumn.

Although all the data from the different areas has not yet all be collated, the preliminary results of this years the Scottish snowpatch survey are impressive. At this time last year, after the very snowy winter of of 2013/14, 281 snowpatches were counted in the Scottish hills. This year the final figure is likely to be in the region of 600 or 700 snowpatches. It will be interesting to see which patches survive to be incorporated into next winter snowpack, I suspect that some very unusual survivals are likely.
Once again in the confines of the Point Five Gully Tunnel.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

North Face Surveying

Jenny the geologist about to do an exciting abseil to have a look at some interesting contacts 
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to be involved in this years North Face survey. The North Face survey is a detailed botanical and geological survey of the North Face of Ben Nevis. This opportunity arose through my work with the John Muir Trust who own a fair bit of Ben Nevis. The first part of the survey took place last summer, and a nice little film about it was made by Dave McLeod and can be found here. The third and final part of the survey will take place next summer.

My role, was to work with Mike Pescod and his team to moutaineers to help get the botany and geology experts into the places they wanted to investigate, and help keep them safe.  This involved scrambling or abseiling into some interesting parts of the Ben, places that I would never otherwise would have visited, particularly in summer. It was great being on the Ben with these experts, they pointed out how all the rock told stories, or could say so much about the plants and ecosystems living up there. In summary what I learned was that the geology of the Ben is more complex and less well understood than I had thought, and I can now just about recognise the difference between the rare and common flowers that you get up there. I hope to get the chance to be involved again next summer. 

A starry saxifrage.  I did find some much rarer flowers, but the pictures I took of them did not come out. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Salbitschijen and Other Alpine Rock

Sophie enjoying good granite on the second tower of the West Ridge of the Salbitschijen
The West coast of Scotland does not seem to have been the ideal place to be a rock climber this summer. It has been pretty wet, with little being climbed. Therefore at the end of July I decided to head to the Alps for some sunny rock climbing. I flew out to Geneva and hired a car. My friend Sophie was coming from Sheffield and traveled by train. I met her at Geneva station after a slightly random conversation with the former Pakistani diplomat to Switzerland who was wondering why I headed to Siwzterland rather than Pakistan for my climbing holiday. We headed over to Chamonix in some really heavy rain. It was late and I was tired when we got there, and then I made the tactical error of reversing the hire car into a tree; oopps. I assumed this was going to be an expensive error, but surprisingly Europecar only seemed to charged me £18 for the large scratch/dent.

Next morning we had a wander around Chamonix trying to decide on a plan. The Alps had been having the opposite problem to Scotland this year, things had been very hot and dry. This meant there was a lot of rock fall in the mountains around Chamonix, so we were considering other options. We bumped into some friends who suggested a 10 pitch granite sport route called AlpenTruam near Andermatt in Central Switzerland. AlpenTruam proved to be a fine warm up, and a good re-introduction to the dark art of granite climbing. That evening it started raining, but we headed up the lovely Salbit hut anyway.
The very pointy summit of the Salbitschijen
The next morning things were still a bit damp, but we did a nice 6 pitch route called Me-Mo, which was the equivalent of about E2 or E3, This allowed us to get back to the hut in plenty of time to sort our stuff out. After dinner we headed over and stayed in a bivvi hut at the base of the classic route of the area, the West Ridge of the Salbitschijen. This has about 36 pitches of climbing, and various abseils as it ascends the west ridge over various towers to the spectacular summit pillar. We did not move particularly fast, but were were steady and we did get to the spectacular summit in daylight. However, descending into the thick cloud, we made a slight navigational error (by following the footsteps in the snow) and got back to the hut a bit later than we should of done. Unfortunately this meant we missed Hans's (the hut guardian) birthday drinks.

Gary seconding the 8th pitch of the very fine Hammerbrucke
By the time the sun came out again a few days later we had been joined Gary Smith; a friend who we had met at the hut a few days previously. Gary's climbing partner had headed home, so he joined us for a few routes. We decided to do Hammerbrucke; one of the fine looking rock routes on the second tower of the West Ridge. The route did not disappoint, it gave about 10 sustained pitches of rounded granite cracks and corners. This was a fantastic route, well worth doing.
The top of the Furkr pass in the rain. Luckily Gary had a van which we able to use for cooking in  that evening.
After some more mixed weather we headed to the Grimsel/Furka pass area. There we did the classic 14 pitch slab route "Motorhead". A great route, but baking sunshine led to some painful toes by the top. The next day some cloud gave some welcome shade on the final route of the trip; Sacramotion, a 10 pitch 7a above the Furka pass.  A final day was spent sorting and socialising around the Chamonix area before heading home the next morning.

All in all a successful trip, and thinking back there is little we could have done to improve it (other than avoiding that tree on the first day), I certainly did more climbing than I have done in Scotland so far this year. In fact, it was so good that I am considering going back out in September.

An Austrian team following us up the classic Motorhead. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Spring and summer cragging.

I will admit that I have not updated my blog for a little while. However, it does not feel like very much has been happening climbing wise. This summer I have been working three days a week as the Nevis Conservation Ranger for the John Muir Trust. This has been interesting and varied. Through May and June this involved a lot of environmental monitoring, which is a fancy phrase for wandering about the hills counting and measuring things. However, as I enjoy wander hills, as well as counting and measuring things, this has been very enjoyable.


     One of my survey sites,  Ben Nevis in the background.             Measuring the height of  rowan seedling. 

I had thought by only working 3 days a week I would get loads of climbing around Scotland. However, the weather has been terrible, and it has not really worked out like that.

Iain below his route. It goes up the overhanging wall above him. The first gear
just below the small curving overlap just below the top of the picture. 

Back in May, after a warm up day in Glen Nevis I headed out with Iain Small to a crag he was developing inGlen Coe. This was definitely not a warm up crag. The weather conditions were not great, but Iain was keen a very bold E7/8 wall before all the avalanche debris at the bottom of the route melted, making the prospect of falling off even more terrible. I came along as belayer and chief snow shoveller. We spent about 20 minutes flattening the avalanche debris at the bottom. The prospect of falling off the crux unprotected crux at about 30ft was still terrify, but Iain seemed to ramble up it with out too much difficulty. I fell off seconding (cold hands, or that was my excuse at least) and was only just able to swing to the rock in given the overhanging nature of the route. We also did a good E4/5 that day as well. I think Iain went back to add another E5 and E6 onto the crag with Niall MacNair.





The next trip was down to the Lakes with Murdoch. Murdoch wrote extensively about this on his blog, but I can summarise it here; the grades in the Lakes tend to be a bit stiffer than those in the North West or Wales, and some of the hard routes weren't super clean, but it was fun.

Sophie and Jon turned up at Cloggy and also climbed a Midsummer Nights Dream. Sophie about to start the run-out on the second pitch. 
A few weeks after than I had saved up enough holiday, and headed down to Wales. The weather forecast was very good, but unfortunately, it did not work out like that (it rained quite a lot). There was a fair bit of standing around the bottom of some very good routes in the Llanberis pass watching it rain, wondering if it was going to clear up. However, we did some good routes done in the pass such as The Edge of Time, Rimsky Korsakov and Surgical Lust. There was one good dry day, and so we headed up to Cloggy where we did A Midsummer Nights Dream, Curving Arete and Great Wall done.

That has been about the total of my climbing this year, but I am heading to the Alps for some hopefully sunny rock soon.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Long hard Winter.

The start of winter was a long time ago. My first day out in the snow this year was 11th of December, with my first winter route of the season being Inclination a couple of days later. Almost six months layer, on Wednesday the 3rd of June, there was still some winter activities to be had. With the cold spring, there was still loads of snow about, so I took the opportunity for a June ski tour.  I headed over towards Aonach Beag, and then down An Cul Choire. The snow was a bit damp and sticky, but it was nice to be out. Between my avalanche work, my own skiing and climbing in this country, and ski trips to Norway and Switzerland, I have spent about 100 days on snow this season.

However, my ski boots are starting to fall apart (I did buy them in 1995, and who knows how many thousands of kilometres I have skied in them) and when boot packing up a steep grassy slope on Wednesday, I fell on my face and tweaked my knee. I think it is time to give up snow for a while, and go sunny rock climbing. 

Here are some pictures of seemingly never ending winter of 2014/15. 

Murdoch on Kellet's North Wall Route. A route we back in mid-December, but I did not write about. 

Myself skiing in Glen Coe back in January (photo Tom Grant).

Looking up Observatory Gully on the 23rd of May on the day of my last winter route. Myself and Robin Clothier did a rather hollow Hadrian's Wall Direct. 

Jordan heading off down An Cul Choire on the 3rd of June. The snow was a bit sticky, but we did get a 500 metre descent in total.



Sunday, 17 May 2015

Return to the Alps.

After Norway I was back in the country for a day, before packing up my skis again (well strictly speaking I had never unpacked them), and heading off to the Alps. Myself and Louisa headed to the Bernesse Oberland area of Switzerland for some more ski touring and a few peaks.

After flying out and driving through Switzerland, we arrived in Grindelwald late in the evening. The weather forecast was good, so we headed up early the next morning.

Day one; Get train up to Junfraujoch. Be inspired by the North Face of the Eiger on the way up. Ski across the glacier and skin up to where it got too steep to skin. Continue on foot up the Jungfrau (4166m). Had sore heads as we were not acclimatised. Descend and then fall flat on my face when skiing down the glacier (this really did not help my headache). Continue down to the Konkordia hut.

Day two; Cross the Altesch Glacier, the ice here is almost a kilometer thick, and then randomly bump into an old flatmate of mine from Wales. Head up Kransberg (3666m). Ski down the way we had come up, and then back across the Altesch Glacier and over a col to the Finsteraarhorn hutte.

Day three; Get up early, the snow is very hard, so use a combination of boot packing and skinning to the Hugisattel. It was pretty chilly up here (-11.4 degrees C when I measured it). Continue on foot to the summit of the Finsteraarhorn (4274m). Ski about 1200 metres back to the glacier and head back over the col to the Konkordia hutte.

Day four; Skin up the Ewigshneefeld in some pretty poor weather (winter ML style navigation required)  to the Monch Hutte. Sleep lots.

Day five; Weather a bit better, but the forecast is poor. Climb the Monch (4105m). Ski back over to the Jungfraujoch, and back down the train. Decide I should go and climb the Eiger at some point. Drive over to near Chamonix.

Day six; The weather is poor, so have a rest day.

Day seven; A morning skiing on the Gran Montets in some mixed weather.

During trip we climbed three 4000 metre peaks, skied some nice (and some not so nice) snow, and shuffled about on some big glaciers. A pretty successful trip I thought. In fact I enjoyed my time in the bigger mountains enough that I am thinking of returning this summer to re-launch my alpine climbing career.

 Looking down the ascent route from near the summit of the Jungfrau. I liked the shape of the glaciers.

 Louisa near the summit of the Jungfrau. Not a bad view.

A cup of tea on the helicopter platform below the Konkordia hutte. The Aletsch glacier behind. Cloud can be seen bubbling over the Jungfrau in the background. 

 The decent from the top of Kranzberg (3666m). Our skis were left about 100 metres further down, The ski down to the glacier was nice.

Louisa throwing shapes on the summit of the Finsteraarhorn. 

 Snowy mountains, sunshine and big glaciers.

Heading up the Monch as the weather starts to close in. 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Arctic Adventures.

In mid April I headed off on a trip to the Lygnen peninsular of Arctic Norway. At about 69°N this was the furthest North I had ever been, and my second time in the Arctic circle. This area has been growing in popularity for ski touring over the past few years, and I can understand why. Beautiful mountains, deep fjords, and good snow cover down to the beach make it a great ski touring venue. 

We went as a group of five; myself, Louisa Reynolds, Martin Moran, Jonathon Preston and Robin Thomas. We hired a cabin on the peninsular, every day for a week or so did a day tour in different part of the peninsular. We did quite a lot of skinning uphill, with Martin calculating we did almost 11000 metres of ascent (and therefore descent) during the week. We experienced some quite varied conditions. Weather wise we had just about everything, sunshine, snow, wind, and rain. Equally the snow conditions were quite mixed, powder, sastrugi, windcrust, suncrust, nice spring snow and slush. Looking at the statistics for Tromso on the excellent Norwegian weather website (www.yr.no), it was unusually mild for the time of year when we were out there. Anyway, somewhere that I would like to go back to. 

I won't go into the details of what we did each day, but the pictures below should give a idea of the trip (although with more emphasis on the good weather days as that is when I had the camera out).

 Typical Lygnen terrain, dwarf birch and pine forest at lower levels, impressive mountains all around.

The big decent. Jonathon heading off down the big couloir from Store Kjostinden. We skied to the edge of the fjord in the background, a descent of over 1200 metres.

Louisa on the beach at the end of the big descent from Store Kjostinden. Nice!

Nice snow and scenery on the descent from Storgalten. (skier in the bottom left of the picture). We did get a bit lost in the birch forest lower down, but that added to the adventure.

The serac band on Jiekkevarri. According to Martin (the wisened mountain guide), seracs only collapse at night. This one seemed not to know that rule, and gave us an exciting moment two shortly after this picture was taken when a large piece dropped off.

Steep and difficult skinning through the ice fall high on Jiekkevarri. Shortly after this a bit of boot packing was required.
The summit of Jiekkevarri, the highest mountain in the area, and the second most prominent Norwegian mountain apparently. Anyway it had a very flat summit, flat enough even for some summit yoga. 
 Looking back up to the summit of Jiekkevarri. We had ascended the mountain from the other side, skied down to the col, ascended another peak, and then had a long ski down back to the road.

Jonathan and Martin skiing down the wide couloir on the descent from Jakavarri. 

Jonathan near the top of a pointy peak (that I have forgotten the name of) on the last day. The weather was quite Scottish, and we were rained on as we approached the car on the descent.