Winter season 2015/16 photo diary

It seems weird to be rounding-up my winter climbing season in mid-summer, but it was such a weird season that barely started, choked, and then somehow didn’t finish until mid-May. This post fits with that confusing timeline.

A false start

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A beautiful day but too much powder for climbing.

My first attempt at a winter day out was in January with an impromptu visit to a very snowy Lake District. Despite beautiful views and cold temperatures there was no chance of any proper climbing: way too much powder made for hard going and a buried route. So, a nice day out but no climbing just yet.

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Citronelle and marine makes a photo.

Winter training

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Descending Broad Gully

Next up was a day with mates from my club training some of the movement tactics that you might use in Scotland or abroad. We had fun on a line in Stob Coire nan Lochan over to the left of the corrie, moving together all the way. The next day the thaw arrived with a bang and we didn’t even leave the cafe – it was raining non-stop and 15 degrees in the valley. Time to go home.

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Leaving Coire an t’Sneachda.

My next Scottish trip was another training trip, this time with work. We had a good time pootling about in the Cairngorms and the weather was great. While on this trip I also managed to sneak in The Message with my boss, which was a fantastic day out. I’ve been winter climbing for about 7 years but had never done anything actually technical and this was a nice change. Bit of a workout for the arms and some mixed action.

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Awkward step on P2 of The Message.

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The steep chimney of P3.

The CIC hut

No sooner as I had returned from Scotland, I was straight back up (I spent one day at work and then went straight back up north). A friend had a spare space in the CIC hut and needed a partner. With a bombproof forecast and excellent conditions I couldn’t resist, and the journey up was absolutely worth it. Getting in to the car park at about midnight, we were at the hut at about 1.30 am and up at 5 am to get on the route… I’d wanted to do Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis for as long as I’d been winter climbing.

Tower Ridge was THE route for me: it was long, classic, in an amazing situation, and not overtly technical.

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Kate on Tower Gap.

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Me on Tower Gap (photo Copyright Philip Jardine).

Kate and I were confident we’d be fine on it, and in the sublime conditions we cruised the route. We found much of the route quite easy and agreed we’d have happily soloed all of it in those conditions but for Tower Gap, which is awkward rather than difficult.

Feeling confident, we went for North East Buttress next: it was a logical next step, another classic Nevis ridge and a chunk harder. However, Ben Nevis bit back: we climbed five pitches of loose, avalanche-prone and hideous terrain that just hadn’t thawed and refrozen in the same way as the rest of the mountain, before we abseiled off. We hadn’t even reached the first platform and the start of the route proper. That was a big reminder that if conditions aren’t right you don’t really have a chance. It was also a good lesson in subtle differences in aspect making a huge difference to snow conditions.

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Traversing more gearless crud.

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The inevitable retreat.

Another crack at NE Buttress

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Our abseil tat from the retreat three weeks earlier. When we’d left it the whole outcrop was iced up.

Three weeks later, now in March, I was back up in Scotland with Scott, who was chomping at the bit. NE buttress was our target, and the conditions could not have been more different to the month previous: the approach was now largely on turf and path, and the snow we found was sublime. We moved together for much of the route until the Mantrap and 40 Foot Corner. Every metre of the route offered something new: it was really special.

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Scott on one of the snowfields of NE Buttress. Very Alpine.

We did the route in good time and planned our next objective as Hadrian’s Wall, another super-classic and which we heard was in excellent condition. We got to bed early, got up early, and left the car park… to be greeted by rain. It was much warmer than forecast, much wetter, and not worth it. Half an hour after leaving the car we shook hands and turned round before driving home. A good decision.

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Awesome bit of ice in a runnel on NE Buttress.

Munro bagging

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Super duper views above Crianlarich.

My final Scottish trip of the season was a beautiful weekend climbing Munros near Crianlarich with some of my oldest and best friends. Snow conditions were good but the weather was exceptional: blue skies, cold temperatures, and bright sunshine. A great way to end the season.

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Views as far as the eye could see.

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The end of a great winter.

My last bit of winter

I spent the last bit of winter getting absolutely destroyed by the fittest group of guys I’ve ever been a part of. I was on a cycling ‘holiday’ in Spain where almost everyone was a very serious cyclist, including two semi-professional riders. High speed riding, huge hills, massive mileage… it was amazing, and a real eye-opener to what a bit of training and dedication can do. Another trip like that next year and another Scottish winter season like the one just gone and I’ll be happy!

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A self-portrait after a very hard day’s riding. My Paris-Roubaix.

 

New possibilities

I’m never going to be a good technical climber. I’m never going to be a good runner. I’m never going to be a top mountaineer. However, I’ve recently had my mind blown as to what you can achieve with just a bit of ability in each of these disciplines…

Take a pinch of running, a sprinkling of climbing, and a healthy dose of mountaineering and you end up with something that I think is very cool indeed. It’s part Kilian Jornet, part Ueli Steck, part vintage Mark Twight. It’s nothing new – it’s just moving fast through the mountains – but the opportunities it opens up are amazing.

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You don’t have to be Ueli to go a bit quicker and get more done.

The USA

I recently went to the USA where the hills are pretty big and the wilderness enormous. In the Cascades where we were, to get from the trailhead to somewhere even just a bit interesting might be five or six miles. In the UK, a lot of your circular routes would be that long; you’d be back in the pub within a few hours and all would be good.

One method to deal with big distances is to load up a huge pack and set off plodding, ready for a very long and tiring day.

It’s the siege tactic, the ‘I will take enough stuff that I can’t fail to get somewhere’ approach.

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Big packs are reassuring and sometimes essential, but there is often an alternative way.

And most people use this method on a big day out: we passed literally hundreds of people doing exactly that. We passed them, however, because we were running. I’ve written on this blog before about the virtues of fell running, but I’d not taken it into bigger mountains before, save for one occasion in the Alps.

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Tiny pack, tiny axe, and a pair of trainers. A big snow ramp ahead.

In the USA I was with a very strong fell runner, and with a pair of microspikes and a mountaineering axe each we got ourselves pretty close to the summit of a pretty big hill (Dragontail in the Cascades, 2694 metres) despite plenty of snow and fairly grotty weather. We retreated because of the weather and visibility but I’d already seen the possibilities.

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Time to retreat: grim weather and not much in the way of protective kit.

The deal

So the deal is you have to move faster to get the route packed into a smaller time, and this means you need to be fitter.

Fitness is the absolute building block: it opens possibilities to you like nothing else.

Secondly, you need to carry less stuff to aid you going faster. By going faster you are out for less long, which is not only convenient but it also reduces the time that you are exposed to potential bad weather or objective dangers. The downside of this is that you’re less prepared if something bad does happen, and if you get tired or injured then you have to get yourself out with minimal kit.

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Strava is an amazing tool for recording your activities and pushing yourself. Just make sure you’re going up a mountain for you and not for someone else.

So what next?

That’s my big question too. A few years ago me and a couple of mates did Ledge Route on Ben Nevis, down the CMD Arete and back to the car park fairly swiftly. We weren’t screaming along by any means, but we did the round trip in about 6 hours if memory serves, moving together fairly quickly on Ledge Route then just pushing on over Carn Mor Dearg. The route in the USA was less technical but further (15 miles), and we went much faster. In the UK there’s a whole host of routes that become possible, and that’s going to be a part of what I’m planning for next winter: moving quickly on non-technical or semi-technical terrain, snow-covered or not. The other obvious area to apply this is in the Alps. I’m under no illusion that I’m not Kilian Jornet, but the possibilities are vast. Kit-wise it’s fairly simple: a mix of running and mountaineering kit, but the tricky part is footwear, as mountain boots don’t really let you run, and in trainers you simply can’t run all day in snow and potential bad weather without risking seriously cold feet (and microspikes definitely have a limit!) Maybe those crazy Salomon boots are the answer… The other thing is legwear, and I think winter running tights or possibly Skimo pants might be just the ticket. Might have to get me some and give them a go.

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The Cascades in WA, USA are pretty ace.

To finish, though, I’d just say give fell/mountain/trail running a crack: go on a route you’d normally hike and run it instead: it’s a totally new experience and opens up such possibilities. You’ll suddenly wonder why you carried so much stuff and took so long before.