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 (, 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. 

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?