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.

 

Making the most of winter

This weekend I was supposed to be going to the CIC hut at the foot of Ben Nevis for an assault on some of the Ben’s classic routes. Work deadlines for group members, however, meant the trip didn’t happen. Considering this weekend’s weather this non-event hasn’t turned out too badly, and in the grand scheme of a season is no big deal, especially a season as good as this one: my best winter so far. Here’s a self-indulgent post which could have been called ‘look at what I have done recently’. Apologies.

The start

My winter season last year was pretty rubbish.

I invested a lot of time and money in getting to Scotland only to be snowed on, rained on, blown at, and generally pummelled by rubbish weather and snow conditions.

This year I had low expectations, maybe even no expectations, and as a result, I didn’t even consider a trip to Scotland before Christmas. Between Christmas and New Year, however, a big dump of snow arrived in the Peak District and I persuaded my parents to drive to the Peak the next day. It was worth it – definitely the best weather I’ve ever seen in the Peak District.

When you are bored of the Peak District then you are bored of life.

When you are bored of the Peak District then you are bored of life.

A casual wander up to Stanage tripled my excitement for the season’s snow.

I'd never seen Stanage in the snow, but this was a big shock - so much snow!

I’d never seen Stanage in the snow, but this was a big shock – so much snow!

The next trip of the winter was on the ‘Dodds ridge’ along from Helvellyn. Four good mates had a great day despite very cold and windy conditions, and though there wasn’t a lot of snow, it definitely felt pretty wintry.

A really cold and windy day out in the Lakes.

A really cold and windy day out in the Lakes.

Taking advantage

A dawn raid with my house-mate to the Lakes paid off big-time when we flew up the super-classic Sharp Edge and came back down Hall’s Fell Ridge. Snow conditions were excellent, it was really sunny, and even the gale-force winds couldn’t detract from an otherwise perfect day out.

Top day out.

Top day out on Sharp Edge.

Summit of Blencathra.

The summit of Blencathra.

Next up was my first trip to Scotland since last summer. I was playing ‘teacher’ to some guys looking to improve their winter skills and we had an amazing weekend, making the most of some cruddy weather to get up Na Gruachaiean in the Mamores and having a skills-centric day out on the Sunday to brush up on navigation and ropework. Great weekend.

A whiteout in the Mamores and a free advert for Mountain Equipment.

A white-out in the Mamores and a free advert for Mountain Equipment.

The fourth weekend away in a row was for a friend’s birthday to North Wales and we were again met by wall-to-wall sun, very cold temperatures, and strong winds. On the Saturday I went out with a group on Cnicht and the Moelwyns, which turned out to be far more challenging than you’d think from a glance at the map.

Cnicht.

Cnicht.

Amazing light and gale force winds made for great photo opportunities.

Amazing light and gale force winds made for great photo opportunities.

On the second day we did what has to be the best low-grade winter route in England and Wales: Crib Lem in the Carneddau. Stunning rime ice, amazing névé, a sheltered route and a group in good spirits contributed to one of the best days out I’d had in ages.

If you’ve not done it, get it right to the top of your ticklist – in winter it’s far better than Crib Goch, Striding Edge, Sharp Edge, Moel Siabod’s ridge, or any of the other low-grade English/Welsh mountaineering routes that I’ve done.

It’s arguably better than Dorsal Arete in Stob Coire nan Lochan too, as it’s not all over in two rope lengths.

Crib Lem should be on everyone's list.

Crib Lem should be on everyone’s list.

Big trip

I’ve a big trip lined up for this summer (more about that in another post I suspect) where we will try to climb a virgin summit. This is obviously really exciting, but in the short term it’s led to some brilliant planning and familiarisation trips, and this one was the best yet. On our first day we walked in to the West face of Aonach Mor in high spirits and under a cloudless sky. I’d already climbed a couple of the routes there before, but had never seen anything from either of them, and this day made up for that. My partner and I climbed Daim Buttress which was a stunning route: long, continuously interesting, and pretty sustained too. A mad dash for the gondola (my GPS recorded an average speed from the top of Aonach Mor to the summit as just over 10 km h-1 – not bad in boots and crampons carrying a rack and ropes) saw us catch the last lift by the skin of our teeth.

Steep turf and big pulls on Daim Buttress.

Steep turf and big pulls on Daim Buttress.

The next day, with the long drive home looming, we chose an easier day out and we all went up Ledge Route. The route was in ridiculously good condition, having an Alpine-style track up perfect névé, and we were done in no time at all. The weather and snow made it seem like an Alpine Facile. Most of the group wanted an easy route down so went down Number Four gully, but three of us were feeling pretty ambitious, so rather than call it a day at the top of the route, we shot off to the summit of Ben Nevis, down the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, over Carn Mor Dearg, and back to the car park. We’d got a real stomp on and the others had only returned to the car park about half an hour before us. At first they didn’t believe we’d got round so quickly, but a quick look at the GPS – 21 kilometres, of which a few were relatively technical, in 6.5 hours – confirmed that we hadn’t just gone to the summit of the Ben and then turned round. That was a real eye-opener of a day, and as my friend put it, “sometimes when you want to, you’ve just got to fly”.

Andy jogging along the CMD arete.

Andy jogging along the CMD arete.

The finale

My last trip of this winter was another with Leeds Uni’s hiking club, a group of thoroughly psyched and enthusiastic individuals. On the first day I went up Buachaille Etive Beag with a group and climbed the Munros at either end of the ridge, leaving me on 99 Munros (not that I’m counting…). The next day was one of the best I’ve ever had out ever. Ever. I’d wanted to do the Ring of Steall (pronounced ‘Shtell’, with a Sean Connery accent, apparently) for almost a decade, ever since hearing about it on my winter skills course eight years ago. I’d done most of it in summer and had done all the constituent parts in winter, but never in one outing. The Uni club had tried the route multiple times over the years, but groups were often repelled by conditions or the sheer length of the route. This time we’d got a strong group, not a hand-picked group of speed demons, but people who were switched on and pretty fit.

On the unnamed ridge on the Ring of Steall which is much more tricky than the Devil's Ridge!

On the unnamed ridge on the Ring of Steall which is much more tricky than the Devil’s Ridge!

The weather was excellent, then terrible, then mixed for the rest of the day. The technical bits took a while, and we spent most of the day breaking trail through knee deep powder, making the going slow. Despite that, five of us completed the route, and three completed all but the final ridge.

Everyone had played a massive part in the success of the group, and that’s what made is such a good day out.

The final Munro on the Ring of Stealle.

The final Munro on the Ring of Stealle.

What went right?

Last year, right at the end of the season, I learnt a really important lesson, and that was to make the best of whatever the weather, conditions, and other factors, throw at you. This year I remembered that and as a result I’ve had my best winter season ever. I’ve not done much technical climbing or difficult routes but I’ve not minded, whereas in previous years I’ve been frustrated if conditions haven’t been perfect and I’ve been unable to get up whichever classic I’d had my eye on. This year I’ve made the most of bad days of weather with easier routes or seeing improvements in others, and those days have often been every bit as days when you are pushing yourself. Winter, you are awesome, but I’m already looking forward to summer.