This weekend I was lucky enough to be working for Steven Fallon Mountain Guides on the beautiful hills above Royal Deeside in some of the best conditions for years! For full blog, see http://www.stevenfallon.co.uk/blog.html
Following a Christmas visit that was beset with storms, Jackie wanted to finish off the Western two of the Drumochter hills, along with her companion, Munro the bear. With a benign forecast, I was happy to oblige, and we had a splendid day out. The snow conditions were challenging at times, with that crusty layer that means every step is an effort, but where there were good patches of neve, it was plain sailing.
We had some good views of the Alder group, as well as down to Schiehallion and Lawers, but the Blackmount and Glencoe stayed resolutely in the clouds.
We saw a couple of hares struggling to find food in the freezing conditions, and an unusual number of black grouse, who were flocking and flying gracefully around the glen all day....they had better keep their beaks down!
Another point of note is that there are now two robust bridges crossing the burn, so the problematic in-spate crossings to access Sgairneach Mhor are no longer...though there are also new ugly tracks to accompany them :(
Another good winter's day out....long may this settled spell continue.
On Monday and Tuesday I was out with Andrew, Ifan and Adam, who wanted to hone their winter skills, and then do an ascent of Ben Nevis. After the stormy weekend, the snow conditions were excellent, and even the sun made an appearance!
We took the gondola onto Aonach Mor on Monday morning, to reduce the effort and maximise the time on the snow and ice. The area around Aonach an Nid is perfect for gradually increasing the angle and difficulty of the terrain, as well as providing some entertaining slopes for practicing boot work, crampon use, and of course ice axe techniques. It was here that I realised I had trimmed the replacement straps on my hire crampons too short for using with big boots like Nepals, and the lads only had a tiny amount to pull on. I usually have to use them on B2 boots you see. Doh! Still, at least they didn't have to faff around tidying off long ends eh?
We had great fun working through the repertoire of arrest techniques, and culminated in whizzing quickly down on hard neve, headfirst, upside down, and then safely arresting. The lads picked it up very well, and indeed, one chap was so pleased with his progress that he chose to put it into effect a little later in the day as we descended, executing a perfect arrest, albeit in crampons....never recommended!
After the technical stuff, we went for a short 'journey', taking a look at the loaded and 'High' rated avalanche prone slopes on the Eastern face, before working our way over a small cornice, deep powder snow, onto neve, and then finally water ice. All of this helped the guys adapt their footwork to the ever-changing snow pack, placing their axes and making progress safely, taking small rests where safe to do so. Finally, we worked our way back down to the ski centre for the gondola down. Most civilised :)
Tuesday was a red-letter ascent of Ben Nevis. At 1344m high, and setting off from almost sea level, even the much-maligned Pony Track is an effort in winter. There were not the hordes that one sees during a summer ascent, though there were folks with rather less than the full winter package of safe kit, but that's unfortunately the norm. The benign weather meant this wasn't such an issue...this time, and the presence of the helicopter in the morning reminded us of the ongoing search for the missing climbers, let alone the two under-equipped folks rescued from the summit shelter on Saturday night.
Anyway, our ascent went smoothly, donning crampons at the Red Burn, and being assisted by some kind folks who had broken trail in the deep snow. The navigation cairns are always reassuring as we entered the 'white room' periodically, but there were some fantastic views in between. The summit had very deep snow, with the old observatory ruins being all but buried, and the trig cairn being just a step up, rather than the spiral steps of a couple of metres or so.
After a brief stop for lunch, we made our way swiftly down, chatting to various folks on their way up, and we had fun taking the more direct Route One where safe to do so, avoiding a zig and a zag or two. There is a team repairing sections of the path, and who had set up a diversion route on the zig zags below the wooden bridge, but we missed it on the way down, and made a nuisance of ourselves by walking through it all. Whoops....well, we did at least tell the fella that his signage had gone! We were down pretty much spot on our 7hr estimation, having had a top day out.
A great couple of days in good winter conditions. Hope to see you guys again maybe!
This weekend I was working for Steven Fallon Mountain Guides teaching winter skills around Lochaber. For full blog, see http://www.stevenfallon.co.uk/blog.html
Had a day off yesterday, so went for a wee climb with Eamon - Despite planning something harder, we ended up soloing Aladdin's Couloir, which was in great condition.
Working for Steven Fallon Mountain Guides this Wednesday on Beinn a'Bhethir. For full blog, see http://www.stevenfallon.co.uk/blog.html
Working for Steven Fallon Mountain Guides this weekend on the Bridge of Orchy hills. For full blog, see http://www.stevenfallon.co.uk/blog.html
So my brief was a modest objective within striking distance of Edinburgh airport, with munros, and which could be completed by 17:00. No problem. Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers from the new car park. And with this forecast, in the bag. But the forecast was for light snow showers, not persistent snow all morning. Boo!
Actually, it made for a nice atmospheric winter's walk, with some clearing and light winds, so one can't complain. Only problem was the drifting and volume of snow meant the going was tough. Really quite tough. The fact we only saw two other groups of folks, one lot on touring skis and a chap in his snowshoes kind of gives the game away.
AC and his son Taz were keen to get some winter experience, and the relatively gentle slopes lent themselves to this, allowing some crampon use on ice, snow and some rock. It wasn't really textbook crampon territory today, but the added traction and security was welcome, and it was only on the re-ascent of Beinn Ghlas that they were packed away.
We had to take the extra height penalty as to have contoured around the coire to the NW would have been hard at best, possibly tortuous, and also quite avalanche prone. There had been an awful lot of cross-loading, and the slopes were groaning under the weight.
The guys set about the extra work with stoicism, but it was a dure old slog. Finally, we dispatched the summit for the second time, and commenced the descent, made both more comfortable on the knees by dint of the snow, but also therefore still tiring. It didn't help seeing the ski-tourers come whizzing down as we were making our way through the nature trail. Jealous, us!?
So did we make the deadline? Just. Phew! We agreed that to have just done the one summit wouldn't have felt far enough, but the two was possibly a wee teensy wee bit far....but the sense of satisfaction may just have made it worth it.
Thanks to AC and Taz for being good sports on a challenging old day, where the additional effort required to walk even a modest distance was considerable, and a fair shock to the system. As I told them, if they can keep up that pace in those conditions, a frosty, hard-packed crampon bash would be a skoosh!
Cheers, and well done to both.
Today I was climbing with my pal Joe in Coire an t-Sneachda. We had wanted to climb the Runnel, but so did everyone and their dog, so we opted for a sporting Crotched Gully II, with a steep corniced finish. Great fun, and a worthwhile trip up from down South for Joe. 'Til next time mate!
I wasn't at all sure that I was happy at the prospect of two unwanted gatecrashers at my four-day winter skills course last weekend. Gary, David and Mikie were pleasant, amiable clients who were trusting me to teach them some new techniques on ice and snow, whereas Gertrude and Henry were just freeloading show-offs who wanted to make a lot of noise and spoil the party! Despite the inevitability of them showing up, we met at the Active Cafaidh on Friday morning and made our plans whilst covering all the basics about route planning, avalanche awareness and forecasting, kit selection etc.
In the afternoon, Gertrude had abated from the 130mph gusts on the summit, and was sufficiently calmed to allow us to get up to 630m at the ski centre, and we were surprised to find enough shelter to cover step kicking, edging, axe use, crampon use and self-belay, before finishing the day as darkness fell with a small 'journey' across varied terrain. A better result than expected.
Saturday was forecasting snow, progressively heavier, with Westerly winds gusting 80mph. Great. We opted for a Narmia-like walk out to Ryvoan bothy, followed by a smash-and-grab attempt on the summit of Meall a'Buachaille, 810m, by the path which gave some relative (and I mean relative) shelter, sufficient to allow us to make the summit. A good experience of the ferocity of winter in the Cairngorms, and a magical walk out in deep fresh snow after lunching at the bothy - how welcome is the most basic of shelter in such conditions?
Sunday promised better, calmer weather, and it delivered. We joined the hordes who all got to the path to Coire an t-Sneachda at the same time due to the guys needing to open the ski road, and staked our claim on a snow slope at the foot of Fiachaill Ridge. There we practiced self arrest techniques, before setting off across the coire to the foot of Mess of Pottage. We won't mention me pointing out a snow covered burn to Mikie, just as I fell through into it myself, OK?
Here we knew the slope would be avalanche safe, and proved to be excellent neve, hard snow-ice perfect for crampons. The ascent is relentless, and we practiced various techniques that we had learned on Friday of using the crampons to ensure a sure foot placement. It would be fair to say some found it easier, (or should I say less difficult) than others, and it illustrates the necessity of practice with any new tool or skill before one becomes comfortable and/or proficient. Winter climbing and walking is not simply the same as summer, only in crampons - It is a whole new skill set, new muscle groups, and much, much more demanding.....but then all the more rewarding.
After a pause to eat and catch our breath, it was a crampon-less march up the summit of the Cairngorm at 1245m, where we met some cave rescue guys on a winter skills trip too. The views were pretty good given the recent weather, over Derry Cairngorm, Beinn Mheadhoin, Lochan Etchachan, Stachan Dubh and Shelterstone Crag. On the descent Gary quipped that he wanted a cafe, and Lo!, there was the Ptarmigan Ski centre as we descended. Unfortunately it was closed.
I used a wee bit of smooth talking, and blagged us a free lift on the last funicular down, which was most welcome for the knees, and allowed us to get a coffee in the cafe at the bottom, which was still open, (despite the length of time it takes to get served in these bl**dy coffee places....grr). The day was completed by an Italian buffet at La Taverna - proper Aviemore experience :)
Monday brought Storm Henry, and with it 130mph westerlies again. We settled on another Ryvoan trip, this time with some micro-navigation, easier on the tired limbs, yet taxing on the brain. We had some informative fun along the way as we delved into the intricacies of our wonderful OS maps and what it looks like on the ground. By 15:00 we had all had our fill of contour lines and slope aspects, and after another welcome stop at the bothy, had a wild old walk out into the wind and driving snow.
David, Mike and Gary were a great group, and I am sure Gertrude and Henry haven't put them off winter in our mountains. Yes it can be challenging, but as I said above, the rewards are all the sweeter, and the beer all the more deserved! :) Thanks for your company gents.