Scottish winter 2018

As I write this it’s 25 °C in Manchester, Northern England. It’s wall-to-wall sunshine, a Wonderwall of sunsh-ee-iiine (there’s some local music for you). This is freak weather. It is bizarre, not usual, out of the ordinary. And this winter was the same, bringing prolonged amazing climbing conditions. Here’s some of the highlights of what I got up to this winter.

January

Liz and I snuck in a quick ascent of Pinnacle Ridge and Sharp Edge in the Lakes in early January. Blue skies all round and good snow: quality.

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Sharp Edge

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Blencathra.

 

I was then whisked off to the USA with work and the bizarre Ouray Ice Festival. It’s amazing, scary and brilliant in equal measure. Real ice, but man-made with sprinklers, and top-rope lines everywhere.

It’s a great way to practice ice climbing and to get pumped out of your mind in relative safety, as long as you keep an eye on potential falling ice as you belay!

Ice climbing comps and watching heroes like Will Gadd was a great bonus.

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Will Gadd tops out on the comp route.

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An amazing sand/snow mountain thing on the way from Ouray to Denver.

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Ouray ice festival in fresh snow.

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Me getting seriously pumped on a long and steep WI6.

 

Back to Scotland

Next, a backpack and Munro-bag of the five Lochnagar Munros was on the cards, staying at the Glas-Allt-Shiel bothy. The weather was dank, it was warm, but we marched round and were rewarded with great views as we neared the Stuic.

 

One of the highlights of the winter was climbing Crowberry Gully in perfect conditions.

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Into the bowels of Crowberry Gully: amazing atmosphere.

Loads of people climbed it this winter but Ross and I got lucky and we were the only people on the route. The weather was mixed but it wasn’t too bad and the perfect neve more than made up for it. Tim Neill had told us we only needed one ice screw: we thought that maybe he did, but we probably needed two. However, he was right and conditions were so good we only placed about 6 pieces of gear on the whole route. The descent was a little complex as a cornice prevented access into the normal descent gully, but the rib to the north was okay, though some windslab was about.

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Pete gets stuck into the second pitch

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I took this from the floor because I’d already been blown off my feet. Windy.

A savage day climbing in the Norries a few days later was had on the Seam. Very strong winds, loads of spindrift, thick rime, and plummeting temperatures (this was Beast from the East time) meant getting out of there as quickly as possible. I’m not sure whether it was the weather or the conditions or both, but it felt more like grade V, 6 than IV, 5, and Pete who’d had the debatable pleasure of leading the top pitch agreed.

Back up North

Long-suffering partner Paul and I found ourselves in Scotland on a weekend where conditions were difficult: avalanche conditions were relatively high and yet the weather forecast was good, and climbing conditions were difficult to interpret with little info online and a lot of aspects unsuitable due to the amount of snow about. Following endless discussions we got on Scabbard Chimney.

The walk-in (wade-in) to Stob Coire nan Lochan had taken us an hour longer than usual, and I was very glad that Paul was very fit and very keen to wade up to his waist to reach the climb itself. I walked behind in his footprints/bodyprints, pretending it was hard for me too.

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A very white Stob Coire nan Lochan.

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Paul gets established on the first/second pitch.

The first pitch was largely buried so Paul got stuck into pitch 2 and made quick work of it – just as well as it wasn’t the place for hanging about. He got pounded by spindrift on his ascent, completely disappearing for minutes at a time. It was a good lead.

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Me on the crux corner (Photo Copyright Paul).

I had the next pitch, somehow being lumped with the crux. I took my time, teetering up on poor feet but with generally good hooks. The clearing was exhausting, though, and it took forever: about six inches of rime covered everything. It was probably a 90 minute lead for 25 metres.

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Me still battling and digging (Photo Copyright Paul).

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The brilliant upper ridge: if the weather’s good I’d highly recommend making the effort to top out on Stob Coire nan Lochan – it’s a great day out.

Being mountaineers and not climbers we opted to finish the route and we were so glad we did: the weather cleared and the upper gully and then the upper alpine-style ridge rewarded us with stunning skies. Perhaps my favourite climb of the winter, on a long and tiring day.

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Summit shot.

The next day we tackled Eastern Slant near Stob Coire nan Lochan (good option if lots of snow about and it’s cold: relies on frozen turf) the next day we headed to Ben Nevis for a short day. I led the first pitch of Vanishing Gully before Paul – a few minutes after saying he struggles placing ice screws one-handed – made quick work of despatching the crux second pitch. It’s a great route and the second pitch is plump-vertical for the first few metres, it’s the steepest bit of ice I’ve climbed in Scotland. We abseiled off and made our way to the cave belay for the second abseil – a far better proposition than abseiling off the peg belay.

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Vanishing Gully second pitch.

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The cave belay.

Late season

Later in the season the conditions were still great and along with Comb Gully in frankly ridiculous spindrift – the worst I’ve ever experienced – Scott, Ross and I climbed the CIC icefall. What an amazing piece of ice! It was dripping as we climbed it and we probably got it on the last few days of which it was climbable. A great low-level option on the Ben.

 

Liz and I climbed Twisting Gully in Glencoe on a great low-stress day where the only real difficulties were found at the cornice, which with a lot of digging by me got taken care of. The next day was one of the best I’d ever had: on an Easter with a good forecast Scotland was busy, but we headed to a deserted Glen Sheil to tackle the Forcan Ridge.

In terms of aesthetics and classical Alpine-style ridges, I think it’s superior to any of the Great Ridges on Ben Nevis, better than the Aonach Eagach: it’s just stunning.

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The first part of the Forcan Ridge.

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Like Castor or Pollux, but without the faff of altitude.

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Views of Skye and Rum.

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The Forcan Ridge goes on for a long while, it just keeps coming. We carried and used a ~40 metre half-rope for moving together, but we weren’t sure it would be long enough for the abseil once we reached it. However, there is a route down on the left (facing towards the summit of the Saddle) which, while quite tricky and a bit loose, wasn’t too bad and looked more tempting than the technical down-climb on the right hand side.

Excluding the top-rope lines in America I climbed 16 graded winter climbs this year (8 of which were grade IV or above) and bagged plenty of Munros too. That’s a record for me, in a winter which broke plenty of records.

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Even when the weather’s grim there’s light ahead. You might just have to wait a while.

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Chamonix Photo Diary

I snuck in a great four day trip to Chamonix this summer. As winter has barely got going yet in the UK I thought I’d jog my memory about a short trip where we got a lot done…

Day 1 started pretty late by Alpine standards. Lift up at about midday, down the Midi Arete, and then on to the Arete des Cosmiques.

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Guess where we are…

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Tacul Triangle.

We blasted up the Cosmiques Arete in good time – I’d done it before while it was first time for my partner Scott – and the atmosphere on the route was fantastic: laid back, stress free, easy going. Even the French guides we chatted to were in a placid mood, happy to join the queues and discuss very specific and extremely boring details about camming devices with us. We finished the route and took the bubble over to the fantastic Torino Hut.

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Walking over to Tour Ronde.

Our next day started early as we had the Tour Ronde north face in mind, a route I’d tried to try a few years ago, but conditions hadn’t even let us get to the route, let alone climb it.

We moved together over the bergschrund and made great progress as the sun climbed behind us.

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Scott getting going on the face.

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The Vallée Blanche.

We pitched some of the steeper ground, but climbing conditions were generally good. The crux chimney was pretty hollow and ‘boomed’ ominously, but good sticks were never too far away. Soon we were out onto the snowfield leading towards the summit.

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Solid screws and good ice. Very nice.

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Heading for the top.

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Legs burning. Feeling the altitude a bit at this point too.

We were pretty delighted to reach the top. We’d made good time on the route and for both of us it was our first ‘proper’ Alpine north face. We walked along the ridge until we reached the guidebook’s abseil descent and then began our six abseils back to the glacier. A rocket-speed run across the glacier meant we caught the last lift back to France from the Helbronner and we were back in the valley for celebratory beers. Fantastic day!

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Tour Ronde North Face from the cablecar.

We spent the next day lazing about, getting stocked up on kit, and then we caught the last lift up to the Midi. We couldn’t believe how quiet it was… too quiet. The forecast was good, conditions should still be good, why were we the only people on the lift? We found out soon enough.

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The famous Midi Arete…

A bit of micro-navigation found us safely down onto the Vallée Blanche where we prepared for our bivvy. It was very cold, very windy, humidity was 100% – it was going to be a grim night. However, slowly the cloud began to clear and figures and tents began appearing in the mist.

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These two guys eventually appeared out of the mirk. They looked absolutely wasted: staggering, slow, falling over.

The forecast slowly came right and we were treated to an amazing sunset and sunrise.

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The Aiguille du Midi from a different angle.

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Alpine sunrise: utterly freezing but completely beautiful.

The next day we made a quick decision to abandon our original plan of having a crack at one of the Couloirs on the Tacul as conditions looked poor. We instead climbed the Laurence Arete, a fantastic little route and a great end to a very productive few days. Sometimes conditions aren’t perfect, but if you take your opportunities when they’re presented, you take your time and change plans when forced, and you can have a great time. Thanks Scott, awesome trip.