The adventure begins
A wet 4.30 am start marked the beginning of our trip to Scotland in Feb. This is always my favourite trip of the year. From the first year I went out, the place captivated me. The wildness of the landscape and weather thrill me. The unpredictability of every trip keeps me motivated throughout autumn and winter. When I’m out running through the rain and mud in Wicklow, when the spirit flags, casting my mind north keeps me moving. What will the weather be like? What climbs will be “in”. If a particular climb is “in“, what will condition be like? Will I get some more of my tick list done?
Weather-watching and perusing the local blogs fill a lot of spare time. I knew this year would be tough going. Scotland had been on the receiving end, like us, of storm after storm since December. Unlike here though it was dumping huge amounts of snow and I knew this would curtail our activities to some extent.
Niall, Karl, Ken and I made the long trip north towards Fort William. I had climbed with Niall last year in Scotland and we had some cracking days out. We have similar goals and seem to generally have the same aims when we’re out there. Karl had done an introductory course to Winter Mountaineering last year and had really enjoyed himself. He had signed up to do an advanced course this year and seemed really keen. Ken had never done any winter climbing but we had convinced him it was something he needed to do. We were to meet my friend from Newcastle, Alastair who I meet the first year out there and we had met up each year since. He’s the quietest Geordie you’ll ever meet but very solid when it counts and finally, sharing digs with us up there, club adventurer, Ambrose.
Disembarking from ferry it was obvious there was plenty of snow on the hills. Looking north the mountains on Arran were blanketed. I love the drive. Once past Glasgow you soon hit Loch Lomond and from there on its one stunning vista after another. We crossed Rannoch Moor. The amount of snow was truly staggering for Scotland. Few of the usual features could be picked out.
On many slopes we could see the trace of avalanches. When we got to the top of Glencoe we stopped to take a look at Buachaille Etive Mor.
I have passed it many times and never seen it in such condition. Two of the plumb gully lines on it were full, Crowberry and Ravens but with unconsolidated snow. No use to anyone. A picture of someone climbing in Crowberry is what started me winter climbing. I only now feel ready to tackle it but it’s rarely in the right condition. Ravens is a pipe dream! There is always next year. We continued on to Fort William and got set up in our digs for the week.
My usual itinerary up here is to hire a guide for a couple of days and then get out myself for the remainder of the trip. Not having anyone to teach me the requisite skills I have found this to be an ideal way to learn the basics of winter climbing. It’s a good system. You’ll second routes that will be initially way outside your ability to safely lead but at the same time give you the self confidence to tackle climbs at an easier grade. I think it’s a good idea to work your way up through the grade so you won’t end up getting sand-bagged on mid grade climbs. More so than rock, during the winter the golden rule of winter climbing is, don’t fall.
Day 1: Stob Coire nan Lochain
We like to get a tune up day in before meeting our guides, so Niall, Ken, Alastair and myself and set our sights on Stob Coire nan Lochan. The forecast was reasonable and we felt the avalanche hazard, although Considerable (see link below) was manageable. The walk into the coire is short by Scottish standards but brutal to the uninitiated. Ken moaned about his knee a lot. The snow level started at about 400m which actually made it a bit easier at the start but the last 100m into coire was tough going.
Niall had been keen to do Twisting Gully (III,4) a Cold Climbs classic (required reading for any would be winter climbing) as he had led the crux on SC Gully (III) the year before and I think it was just an itch that needed scratching. We knew that gullies would be out on this trip, in Lochaber anyway, so I had set my eye on Raeburn’s Ordinary Route (IV,4) as a backup plan. I love doing climbs that have been put up by some of the greats and Harold Raeburn is right up there. This would be my first IV lead and the game face was on. Ali and I swam up to the base of route. There were prodigious amounts of snow it took ages to get to the base. Eventually we got a descent nut in after 10 minutes digging, not ideal for a belay but I had spotted some rope tat 5m away and knew I could clip that and expected to get more gear in as I moved up the initial chimney. This was my first mistake.
The first pitch is close to 60m and over the length of it I got 3 pieces of gear in. The route was buried in fresh powder so axe placements weren’t as secure as you’d like and by the time I had worked my way up to the second belay my head was well and truly fried. It physically wasn’t very hard but it was mentally the hardest bit of climbing I’ve ever done. I arrived at the second belay sitting au cheval on ridge, knowing I was just out of rope and starting to freak. I couldn’t see a thing to set up a belay with. Just as I was about to start trying to bury my axe I looked out to left and saw a newish peg in a crack. I dug the snow out of crack further down and place a descent nut. I had my belay. The sense of relief was unbelievable. I brought Alastair up. And he followed through. Niall arrived up quickly behind him. He had led the first pitch well, finding more gear than me. The second pitch bypasses a big tower. You traverse around it and then up a shallow gully behind it. After that you make a bold step out to the left over the cliff face on soft snow. The wire Alastair used to protect this is still there. He bet it in. I don’t blame him. Niall appreciated the courtesy. The last belay was solid. I led the last pitch and although it was easier it was quiet precarious. I was also getting into the swing of things and found plenty of protection using a bit of cop on, sadly in short supply on first pitch. Alistair and I topped out. It was dry but the wind was biting. I wasn’t sure how Ken was doing. It was his first winter route so Niall would have to lead it all.
After an extended wait, Niall topped out and shortly afterwards Ken. The steward’s enquiry commenced. How long was I on first pitch? I don’t know but it was a while. How long were we on top waiting? A while. What we do know is Ken had an attack of the vapours. What caused them? No one knows but I suspect it’s because he’s a great big fanny. It was a great day out. I was buzzing. I had the piss ripped out of me on the way down to car. I didn’t care. A great start to the week.
Karl had a good first day. He had the good luck to get paired off with a guide on a 1 to 1 basis, it’s normally 2 to 1 so on his first day he managed to get The Curtain (IV,5) on Carn Dearg and Left Hand Chimney (IV,4) on the Douglas Boulder done, with his guide Matt Stygall. Ambrose was off on the North Buttress (IV,4) on Buachaille Etive Mor with Alan Hughes finishing up a course. We went straight to the pub to have a drink and see who could bullshit the most. I won. I’ve lots of practice.
Day 2: The Curtain/Curtain Rail – Ben Nevis
The second and third day out were to be guided days. The forecast on the first of these wasn’t brilliant, we decided to head up the Allt a Mhuilleann to the CIC hut under the North face of Ben Nevis, and take a look at our options when we got up there. There wasn’t a huge amount on. No one had been high on the mountains for weeks. Most of the big classics were out.
It’s a stunning walk in, even in foul weather. I remember how intimidated I felt the first time I walked in under Carn Dearg and up towards the CIC hut. Now it just gives me a rush. So many great climbers have climbed here, set new routes here and still today the boundaries are being pushed.
Mike Pescod and Guy Stevens our guides for next few days pointed out bits and pieces. Because of the unusual weather over the last 6 weeks climbs were in that hadn’t been done in years. The Shroud (VI,6), an icefall in Castle Corrie had touched down for the first time in years. No one could get near it though because of the avalanche hazard on the hill above. We took turns out in front to try breaking the wind for the others behind. Eventually we got to CIC Hut and geared up. The Curtain was in good condition and there was another climb beside it the Curtain Rail (IV,4) beside it that would allow us climb together and then switch. Although given a harder technical grade I found The Curtain the easier of the two climbs. The ice on The Curtain gave first time placements all the way up while the crux move on the Curtain Rail had slightly cruddy ice. It made for a nice thoughtful sequence. I believe Ken suffered a brain fart here but I only have second hand information so it’ll stay on the hill. For the moment. My descent down No. 5 Gully would have won me a prize at the Winter Olympics. It certainly gave the lads a laugh.
Day 3: Observatory Ridge – Ben Nevis
The following day Alastair and I climbed Observatory Ridge (V,4) with Mike. This was the last of the 4 great ridges on Ben Nevis for us. The Ridge was covered in snow and mist. It made the digging out of belays really difficult, and in some cases, further up the ridge impossible. We had to move together over steep but easy ground with massive exposure on either side. Every axe and foot step had to be 100%. It felt really out there at times. As we were doing this the mist lifted for a while and we could see all around. It is really massive. We could see climbers across on Tower Ridge and we could hear Ken (really loud) and Niall across on the NE Buttress. Unfortunately the clag closed back in but not before we got a chance to check out the cornices. They were massive. We were able to skirt these by moving out left, but even now 3 weeks later I don’t believe any of the classic gullies have been done. We topped out to find Niall and Ken were already on their way down. After a most enjoyable bum-slide down the Red Burn, losing about 400m in 10 minutes we met up with lads at the car park. Karl had also done the NE Buttress with Matt. He had an exciting day. Starting up to the First Platform by a rarely in condition, Newbiggings 80 Minute Route Right Hand Variation (V,6) and then, while doing one of the crux moves on NE Buttress, the Mantrap, he was left holding just the handle of his axe as it had become detached from shaft. Exciting stuff! While we were all on Ben Nevis Ambrose was out on a blind date on Stob Ban in the Mamores. He had done the east ridge of the North Buttress (II/III) and had a cracking day.
Day 4: (Aidan/Alastair) George – Liathach, Torridon
The following day we were back out by ourselves again. Niall and Ken were keen to do Tower Ridge while Alastair and I opted for a road trip. I have for a few years been looking to go to the NW of Scotland. Conditions are fickle here because of its proximity to the sea. This year though the best conditions seemed to be up there. The avalanche forecast was good so Alistair and I set off at 6.30 for Liathach up in Torridon. It was a fantastic day out. Once north of Invergarry it really does become wild and remote. It took us nearly 3 hours to get up there but it passed quickly. We had set our eye on a climb called George. It’s graded as a III,4 but with some recent rockfall local climbers have upped it to III,5. We arrived at the car park on a lovely clear morning. All the walk-ins are meaty up there and the guidebook had it down as a 2.5 hours in to coire. We made good time and got to the foot of climb. I took the first easy pitch and ran the rope out to its full length. To the start of the more technical sections. Alastair set off and came to the first step which he surmounted with the minimum of fuss. He disappeared out of sight. I was left there occasionally paying out the rope taking in the views which were magnificent. Eventually the rope came tight and I got moving. Over the first step the rope continued on for 15m and then disappeared into a hole/cave(?). I followed the rope. Ali, had set up belay in the cave. It was really tight. He looked uncomfortable. ‘Are you sure this is the right way?’ ‘Yes 100%’. I could see light behind him.
The guidebook describes it as fun and that it shouldn’t be bypassed. There was no way I could follow him in and swing leads, he’d have to continue on himself. With hindsight this was a real stroke of luck. To continue Ali had to dig away the snow and move towards the light. The cave is formed by an enormous chockstone. To lead on you have to climb up into a letterbox above it turn through 180 degrees and reverse out over a sheer drop. There is very little clearance so turning around is a struggle. Reversing out over sheer droop is a bigger struggle and trying to get your arm/axe out and into something solid is ….?. The belay was a massive thread so 100% but Ali did ask to be kept on a tight rope. A few times. When I eventually followed thru I couldn’t believe it. It was a really ballsy lead. I led through to the top and out on the ridge near the summit of Spidean a’Choire Leith.
At this stage it was later than I had expected and the weather was crapping out on us. I had planned to traverse Liathach over the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles, get two routes done but there was no point. We needed to get to the top of Spidean to find our way off the mountain.
It’s a fabulous top (only 275 Munros to go now) but we were only getting fleeting glimpses in the worsening weather. We descended to a col lower down the mountain and found our way off the mountain by using the tried and tested method of following the footprints. We eventually picked up the track lower down the mountain and reached the van for 7.30. It was a proper Scottish day out and the pair of us were buzzing, even faced with the long drive back to For t William. We already have plans to get back up there for a few days next year. It was a brilliant day out. We arrived back at Fort William just in time for beer and kebabs. A per fect end to my birthday.
While we were off fannying around on Liathach, Niall and Ken were doing the famous Tower Ridge
(IV,3) Ken takes up the story . . .
Day 4: (Niall/Ken) Tower Ridge – Ben Nevis
It was Wednesday, my fourth day out and my third morning in a row to be walking into the CIC hut. We had arrived on the Saturday. I had an ‘easy introduction’ day on Sunday; a quick spin into Stob Coire na Lochain; a restful belay and a record breaking ascent, with Aidan, Alastair and Niall leading the way. Monday and Tuesday we climbed with guides. The pace was a bit easier this morning than that set on the earlier mornings. We were up earlier than the other days and were making good progress. The sky was blue and the air still.
Our walk-in was going to be 40 minutes longer this morning, as we hadn’t access to the higher car park , used exclusively by the guides. As we approached the hut we could see some parties setting out and behind us we could see a string of climbers approaching.
Happy that we had set off early enough we passed the hut and headed up and left of the Douglas boulder. On the steeper ground we put on our crampons and got the axes out.
This was my first trip to Scotland, my fourth day in crampons and I was comfortable uphill, downhill though I was still being cautious.
We were heading for Tower Ridge. It was Niall’s route really, I was along for the experience and happy to second. If other days were anything to go by we were expecting lots of snow on the route. Protection might be hard to find and perhaps some critical features might be buried. We were both looking forward to testing ourselves in the conditions.
Niall lead off up a wide snowy gully, finding gear on the left wall, he disappeared around an elbow and I was quickly called up to the belay; a piece of in situ cord on a spike. The next pitch was the first bit of real climbing, rock snow and ice, a short chimney lead to a broad snowy ridge where Niall set up a stomper belay. As I completed the pitch, a guide and his client appeared to our left, ascending a snow slope. Niall hit the green for go button. The race was on to keep ahead and not have people getting in our way, especially a guide and his client.
As I pondered the view, Niall was off. Niall and Aidan had done a number of trips together and this was my first trip with them. They climbed with guides on a couple of days each trip and they obviously had absorbed a lot of knowhow and had made it their business to learn the skills and the environment. I wasn’t out of my depth, but certainly I had no winter climbing experience and deferred to the two lads when it came to planning the day’s climb. Part of the plan was obviously not to stop! The previous few days I had become accustomed to eating and drinking on the hoof, being fed hot drink while I belayed. My efficiency had to improve, with the guides it is possible to switch off; today there was no switching off. It was going to be a long day and we were not on for having anyone make our day longer.
We completed a couple of pitches along a shallow ridge; following instructions I moved out ahead and belayed Niall along a pitch, he arrived and corrected my stomper belay technique.
The Guide and client arrived, Niall was gone. He was along the ridge digging out a belay at the base of the smaller tower. When I arrived we were belayed on a couple of nuts and a piton. It was a wide part of the ridge, plenty of room for everyone. Niall traversed right along the base of the tower and dug out a spike about ten meters out, another ten meters he disappeared around a corner and I could tell by the rope he was now moving up. The Guide and client arrived. There seemed to me to be an alternative route straight up the tower, but on the left, but most route descriptions warns against this route. Niall called me across, the guide following. My first winter lead was offered; I was up the gully like the proverbial rat. I know from other climbing experience that I climb differently as a second; I seem to get less absorbed in the climbing and tend to follow the rope. It’s a habit I’m trying to break. I exited the gully onto a long snow slope, I ran it out the length of the rope, but couldn’t get to the obvious end of the slope. Now to build a belay; a stomper or dig one out at the base of a small boulder to my right? Well my last stomper did not meet approval so perhaps I should stick with what I know. I dug, and dug and dug some more. Finally I had a route dug out for a long sling, which of course was not on my harness but below on Niall’s harness. I dug some more and found two nut placements.
The guide appeared to my left. I watched as he did a little stomper dance, drove his axe in and within seconds was calling his client up. I eventually called Niall up. He was now second; I reasoned that he was at least safe and alive; he was still second! I’ll have to work on that efficiency!!
Another pitch or two and somehow Niall was ahead again and digging out good belays for the guide and client. Finding good belay spots is a bit of a black art I think and it comes with experience I hope. The competition was beginning to dull as the two leaders got chatting; they switched leads for a couple more pitches, one belaying slightly above the other on each pitch. It is good to cooperate with other climbers, but it was obvious we were all trying to stay ahead of the posse behind us. The blue sky had disappeared and there were no views from the ridge. The wind was rising. I arrived at the foot of The Great Tower. The guide was ahead on the eastern traverse, his client belaying. I looked up at the near vertical face of The Great Tower and wondered if I could climb it. The guide was on what seemed to me to be a snowy path, well beaten out by previous climbers over the last few days. The narrow path seamlessly blended into the surrounding mist that rolled down the steep slope below. Niall moved quickly along the traverse, it swung left then right with a step over a small ridge and over a buried block then the route turned sharply up to an open slope. As I turned the corner and climbed the slope Niall called, he was way out to my left, almost below me, standing in Tower Gap. I crossed the slope to the top of The Gap. The snow and ice were soft and mushy and not at all as good as what we had previously climbed. As I approached, on my right was the sense of yawning space. I couldn’t see it but felt it was there, Down to my left in The Gap Niall was belaying and gave some instructions about the climb down. The ice wasn’t solid. It was undercut and below where you would like a good right foot there was only scratchy rock. It was the first time in the week I felt I had to reset myself and consider that I might have to be prepared to take a swing, right down the narrow walls of Glovers Chimney. I kicked some of the slush away, got a good left foot and traversed across, not very stylishly, but it was winter in Scotland!!
The Gap was definitely the most technical part of the climb, the most exposed and the least secure. There were a few delicate moves to follow to get out and onto the ridge above. I had the comfort of the rope; I was quickly getting to like this seconding. Niall had no such comfort and did well to step delicately up the fragile snow and ice.
Another run out, a climb right over a short wall and bulges and we were up. Niall was barely visible in the blowing snow. The weather had got a lot worse. We gathered the gear and prepared for the descent. We had prepared a couple of bearings and distances to guide us from the top back to the well trodden descent path. The plateau of Ben Nevis is not the place to be lost in a white out. If there was evidence of other climbers about it was quickly blown away by the high wind. There were no footprints to follow. I walked on our bearing, Niall close to my shoulder making sure I didn’t stumble over an edge in error. A sharp turn right after 150 meters brought us onto the correct bearing to descend towards the Red Burn.
As we descended we were sure we were on the right path, the texture of the snow was solid underfoot compared to left and right of our route although visibility was nil. I had never experienced a complete white out before where there seemed to be no up or down and it was good practice to navigate through it.
We gradually emerged and quickly descended; helped by an exhilarating 500 meter bum slide. It was almost dark by the time we got to the car park. A day out in the mountains would not be complete without some injury and my right leg obliged. I hobbled down the last bit of path, Niall didn’t seem in such a hurry now, happy with his successful lead he waited at each bend to make sure I was still mobile. We both reached the jeep, sat stiffly into the comfortable seats and relaxed.
A full on, great Scottish winter day out. Now back to Aidan . . .
Day 5: Stob Bán
The following day’s weather was horrendous so we all had a rest day to recharge the batteries and even though the day after that’s forecast was poor we had made up our minds to go out anyway We thought we’d head up and take a look at Stob Ban and see if we’d get the route Ambrose had done earlier in the week done. We battled our way up the track on the way in for an hour or so in the strengthening wind and deepening snow and finally decided unanimously to turn around.
The avalanche hazard was rising all the time, still it filled part of the day and after going back to Fort William we went out for the afternoon and spent the day climbing indoors.
Day 6: North Buttress, Buachaill Etive Mór – Glencoe
With high winds and a sketchy avalanche forecast we decide to head over to Glencoe to try North Buttress (IV,4) on Buachaill Etive Mor. The weather was to deteriorate during the day so we left early. I was climbing with Ken and Niall because Alastair had injured his hand at the climbing wall the day before. Ambrose and Karl were joining us. We got in to the base of the buttress and started to ascend towards the foot of the climb. The snow wasn’t frozen so even getting to the bottom of climb was hard work. When I went to put my crampons on one of them decided to come apart in my hand. It took me 15 minutes to fix it and by the time I got moving again my hands were frozen and I was in foul humour. I caught up with the two lads who were waiting for me and flaking out the rope. Niall was ready to run the rope out, up to the first belay just to get things moving as there were two lads in front of us. Niall brought me and Ken up to belay, not before Ken tried to remove one of my fingers with his new axes. By the time we got up to it, the rope was in a right mess. Niall was going to lead the first proper pitch so it needed to be pulled back thru. While I was doing this Ken had spotted a helicopter. Instead of paying attention he was staring vacantly at the helicopter (RAF practicing I’d guess). I believe he has some previous here so I should of let it pass but I lost it and told Ken to ignore the big helicopter. I was quite frank. Meanwhile we waited for the two lads in front to finish. They were painfully slow, but I’ll cast no stones after my performance earlier in the week. Niall led off up first pitch. It wasn’t in the best condition, freezing level was above the mountain top and it was covered in unconsolidated snow. Sub-optimal I believe is the expression.
By the time Niall reached the second belay he had caught the two boys up. The next pitch was the crux. The lads were down to a crawl. I was cold and flowery. The toys came out of the pram. I told Ken I’d had enough. I untied and down-climbed to the base of route. I stopped to see how the lads were getting on. Even after getting to the base of the hill and looking up, the team in front were still on the second pitch. I crouched down behind a boulder to watch. The eventually finished and Ken set off. It was his first winter lead and he nailed it. He was up it in no time. I’d seen enough. They had caught the two lads again. I went back to the carpark and met Ambrose and Karl who’d bailed earlier, and got a lift back with them. Niall and Ken arrived later on. They had abbed off after the second pitch because the team in front were so slow. We’d had a good day out despite the poor weather. One important thing I took from the day was the forecast. Although very high winds (70-80mph) had been forecast, they didn’t materialise until much later. Nine times out of ten the forecast is on the money and should never be ignored, but in Scotland to a degree you should always head out and stick your nose in. Otherwise you’d get nothing done.
That was the end to our unofficial IMC meet in Scotland. There was the usual bout of drinking and bullshitting and the long drive home but I think everyone enjoyed it. The rat had been sated for the time being.
I’m already looking at ideas for next year. I definitely want to get up and do some more routes in the NW. Niall still has his eye on Point Five. Ken is going to get his knee fixed so he can join us again next year without having to do all his weird stretching, and I think the bug has well and truly bitten Karl. He just needs a pair of axes that don’t come apart on him. Ambrose seemed to have a good two weeks and picked up lots of new skills as he works toward his Winter ML.
CFort William: Accommodation
Courses, Private Guiding
UKC Logbook: What’s been climbed in past 5 days
SMC Guidebooks: A good selection covering the whole of Scotland.