Was working in deepest Glen Affric last week for Steven Fallon Mountain Guides. A great three days, full blog at http://www.stevenfallon.co.uk/blog.html
A very experienced high-altitude mountaineer once said to me that summit success was '60% attitude, 30% fitness and weather, and 10% luck', and I completely agree. My recent trip to attempt Peak Lenin in Kyrgyzstan, 7134m ended in an early retreat, and the numbers above wavered due to various influences as the trip progressed.
We had a very successful early acclimatisation, with the long walk-in to Advance Base Camp from Ashik-Tash basecamp going smoothly, followed by an ascent of the North ridge of Petrowsky as far as the non-technical ground extended to 4150m. Then, after a rest, it was up to summit Yukin Peak at 5140m, which was a fantastic viewpoint for the whole route. It is there that we started to get an appreciation of the scale of this massive mountain.
Nothing in the Alps compares to the immensity of the Himalaya, and this area, the Pamirs, is no different. The standard convention of not ascending more than 3-500m per day simply will not allow sufficient progress here, and the camps are strung out in 'safer' areas on the mountainside with around 1000m of ascent each time. This, along with the fact that you carry loads above ABC mean that the days are physically challenging, and acclimatisation is at a premium. Finally, as there are various commercial companies operating on the mountain, the bottleneck that is Camp 2 has become an unsanitary and rather sketchy place to be or longer than necessary.
My 10% luck really ran out on the day we were due to do our first load carry when I came down with diarrhoea. This meant another rest day and plenty of antibiotics. It is always important to follow stringent camp hygiene, and I have always been fastidious with washing, eating and drinking, but unfortunately here you are somewhat at the mercy of the camp cooks etc, and stomach upsets were rife around the whole mountain, let alone at our camp.
I felt a little better after 48hrs, and managed to eat, so we set off at 2am, the first party to do so. We made good time across the moraines and up the glacier, tackling the crevasses and ladder steadily and safely. We were in no rush, as we would be able to cross the 'Frying Pan' (where the snow and ice reflects the UV light and heat and provides exceptionally hot temperatures and debilitating levels of UV) to Camp 2 before it got really hot. Unfortunately, as each hour went by, I got weaker, the lack of food and rigours of the illness telling on me. We slowed, and eventually got to C2 by around 1pm. We had to find and erect the tents stored there by the porters amongst the relative chaos of far too many people, in various states of exhaustion through heat and effort and of course the altitude, as were were at 5400m by now.
The only place we could pitch was right at the top of a steep stony area, exposed to rockfall, but 'thankfully' close to the melt-water supply and the precarious balcony path to the quite disgusting latrine area. I would need to make countless visits during the night, tottering along the icy, gravelly path in the dark, and could keep no food down. It was pretty miserable and very difficult to remain hygienic, so the decision was made to descend the next day, which we did.
I did feel a little better with the drop in altitude, but the lack of sustenance in over four days was telling, and so we knew we had to rest more days. The problem was that the weather window was slipping by, and to make things worse, there was a guide and his client killed in an avalanche just above C2, a Swiss climber found dead on the summit ridge and various parties missing/trapped up at C3 and C4. All of this affected the 60% factor, that of attitude. We assessed our options, and contemplated getting a local guide to assist, but the weather, the fatigue, the interrupted acclimatisation programme and the ever-increasing serious nature of the mountain was nibbling away at our resolve. After a lot of debate and mulling over our options, we decided to abandon the trip.
It is/was very disappointing and sad, but it's all part of mountaineering. A 7000m summit is a real challenge in itself, without some of the other physiological and psychological issues we were facing. You need to be in prime physical and mental condition, otherwise the higher you go, the more dangerous and consequence-ridden it all becomes. Peak Lenin truly is a wonderful mountain in an outstanding area, and more than lived up to my expectations. Some of the conditions on the mountain not so.
But it is huge. It is very high. It does not suffer fools. Everything needs to be stacked in your favour, otherwise things can become very serious indeed. The nominal success rate is between 20-25%, and anecdotally we had it suggested that this year it has been in single figures - That was certainly reflected at our camp.
You win some, you lose some. Yes, We were very disappointed, but all of us know we made the right decision. Will I be back? Certainly a possibility.............it's a cracker of a mountain!
14 years ago I climbed Eagle Ridge, 250 metres, graded Severe with four stars as one of my first big mountain routes. I felt I was up to a Severe (S) route back then, as I had been leading harder routes on the local crags, and my friend Richard was happy to lead it. True, guidebooks and web pages disagreed about the accuracy of the grading, with most feeling it was actually harder than S, especially when wet, but how hard could it be? It was a S after all..... We actually had a challenging day, not always 100% sure of the route, and me getting ever more tired and afraid, culminating in an ignominious haul over the last hard crux on a tight top-rope. Oh, it was hard alright, with wet, gravelly sections initially, then some fantastically exposed sections on good rock, but with at least three 4b moves with rounded holds or hand-jams, if at all. We got up it due to Richard's perseverance, and with no thanks to my moaning about being 'sandbagged', a climbing term for being a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Over the intervening years, I have never really climbed a lot, defining myself as a mountaineer rather than out-and-out rock climber. So though I have enjoyed fabulous long routes in the UK such as North East Buttress, Tower Ridge and Observatory Ridge on the Ben, various long routes on the continent etc., my technique is slow and steady, and only comfortable on the odd crux move rather than a succession of them. That said, I always wanted to go back to Lochnagar and pitch myself once more, this time as a lead climber rather than a second, so when Eamon, Adam and Kerry suggested a meet up, it fitted the bill entirely.
After an overnight along Glen Muick, the forecast dictated a later start, and we made a hot, muggy march into the coire in a sharp 90 minutes, which is testament to everyone's fitness with ropes, harness and gear on our backs. After a short snack stop at the mountain rescue box, we scrabbled our way up the Douglas Gibson gully to what the Classic Rock guidebook diagram showed as the start of the route. It had signs of passage, and Adam gamely started on up. He soon encountered difficulties, and the memories of my previous struggle came flooding back, ebbing my confidence. Just then, another team following us shouted up that they thought they were on the correct route, having used the photo and better topo in Dan Bailey's book. True enough they were, and I scuttled down to lead off, leaving Adam to abseil off and join us later.
I led the odd pitches, and Kerry my partner the even. The route is steady enough to start, though moist, lichenous and vegetated, being North facing and sheltered as it is, so we were all looking forward to cleaner if more challenging rock higher up. It came, initially as a succession of corners and grooves, ever more exposed, ever more absorbing. What was surprising was the challenge of the first of what turned out to be three hard step-ups, exposed, all but hold-less and terribly committing. I knew about the crux move above the aptly-named 'sentry box' belay, as that was where Richard had had to pull me up all those years ago, but the years had erased the others from my memory. I also feel my strength isn't what it was back then, when I was doing manual work on the fences, and was of course so much younger.
Still, despite my 'disco-legs' (as climbers call the involuntary spasms your legs go into when stressed on an awkward stance), I had taken my leads, and we were on the last couple, so it looked like it was in the bag. Then I got to my previous nemesis whilst on the lead - I was stood on a knife-edge, the gully many hundreds of feet below me, with an off-set wide groove and no holds to speak of above. 'Here we go again' I thought, only this time I had no top-rope. I had a couple of attempts, thought it through, and with a cam placed as high as possible, reached up and found the loose but 'thank God' hold, and was up. But I was fried, mentally and physically. Thereafter I should have taken the belay on a small ledge, but feared too much rope drag, so ended up perched on a well-protected but teetering gable of rock less than single shoe's width, and brought Kerry up.
After some careful gear swapping, she set off on the last pitch, traversing the fabulously exposed wall, her rock-climbing prowess coming to the fore as she moved gracefully up, before coming to a halt at the 'official' crux. It is a scoop of rock with a no-holds mantelshelf move high above the void, and despite her being able to lead much higher grades in less committing and vertiginous situations, this was proving tough. After a lot of thought and up and downs, she went for it, and despite scarily snagging her belted gear as she wriggled up the crazily exposed slab, made the top. I decided there was no way I would make that move when I got to it, and she left a sling for me to pull on as she came to the final obstacle.
This was v-shaped groove, with no positive holds at all. It proved too much. Adam and Eamon were watching and shouting encouragement from the coire rim, and as the day was pressing on and enthusiasm was waning to say the least, Adam abseiled down to offer a top-rope to Kerry and then myself to finish the route.
So, had I exorcised the ghosts of 14years ago? Well, I had lead half of the route, something I would never have been able to do back then, but it wasn't that stylish, more perseverance and bloody mindedness. But is it a Severe? In it's entirety I suppose yes, with much top-end Very Difficult interspersed with three or four really challenging moves, some of which get 4b or at least Hard Severe or even the odd call of Very Severe on some web pages. I hoped I would swan it, as did Kerry - After all, it is ONLY a Severe ;) But no - Eagle Ridge is a full-on mountain route that tests. To quote Merlin, a UKClimbing contributor - 'It's mostly VDiff apart from the HVS unmentioned bits :)', or MWilkes - 'For those competent, but low grade, leaders, don't let the Severe grading lull you into a false sense of security. Its a serious, committing and exhilarating full day out.' I concur wholeheartedly!
Thanks to Kerry for sharing the leads, and for sharing the mutual challenge. Thanks to Eamon for getting us all together, and especially thanks to Adam for the final top-rope, and for putting up with us numpties when he can climb oh so much harder. Still a great day out.
Last week I was working for Steven Fallon Mountain Guides over a long weekend on the Hebredean island of Rum, during which we did a full traverse of all 7 of the mountain tops which constitute the Rum Cuillin. For full blog, click on - http://www.stevenfallon.co.uk/blog/2018-07-06-rum.html
I have several munros close to home, living as I do in Stirling, and the most prominent are Ben Lomond to the West, Ben Chonzie to the North East and and Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin to the North. I have climbed the latter ones many time, usually taking the standard route in from Ardvorlich on Loch Earn, but I have also done them from Glen Ample over Ben Each. On the summits, I have always looked at the surprisingly wild country to the south, and the beckoning nature of the two ridges that bind the Gleann Dubh Coirein (The Valley of the little Black Coire), and promised myself that I would do them one day.
One thing that had put me off was the fact the bridge over the Keltie Burn had been washed away in a storm some years ago, and there were therefore two difficult burn crossings to be made in normal Scottish conditions...well, that and the expected bog once over the bealach at Meall na h-Iolaire. But here we were, the chance to scope out another route, excellent blue skies and the ground as dry as it was ever going to be. It's on!
I parked at the forestry road end a couple of kilometres past the tourist honey-pot of Bracklin Falls, (though I doubt there was much of a fall in these conditions!), and got out the bike to cycle as far as I could up the track. As I was doing so, I greeted a chap who was planning on camping out, and he informed me that Drummond Estates had reinstated the bridges. Hurrah! As we chatted, we spotted our first Red Kite of the day, and I was to have them circling overhead for many hours as the walk progressed, and added bonus. They weren't the only things in flight though - The heat had all but suppressed the midges, but the horseflies, a.k.a. clegs in Scotland were out in force. I had liberally applied Smidge, which seemed to stop them biting, but by heck they were annoying until over 600m or so.
I dumped the bike at Arivurichardich, where some guys have apparently rented the old bothy and have done it up for stalking and the likes, and set off up the feint path. Though it is shown on the OS map as going right over to Loch Earn, it doesn't. It sets off up my panned descent route at the bealach, so it was off piste after I reached the high point at 580m, and I lost height as I waded through the swamp grass to gain the SE ridge of Ben Vorlich. It was very hot indeed, and I was glad of the 3 litres of water I brought. I didn't want to bank on the burns, knowing that even if they weren't dry, they would be very brown and acidic. The Allt na Dubh Coirein was exceptionally low, more resembling things I have seen in Argentina than Scotland!
There is nothing exciting about the slog up the ridge, other than it's remoteness and expanding views, though the kites added entertainment, as did another hovering bird of prey that you may be able to identify but I am not good at my birds :( Before long I was at the summit at 985m, which I predictably shared with folks coming up the standard route. The views were expansive indeed. I chatted with one chap, and said that I was planning to try some scrambling on the connecting ridge to Stuc a'Chroin, and he said he'd watch me first before trying it! I had once backed of before when I had my young son with me, and know of a couple of fatalities and injuries there, so I planned to be cautious. There is a much easier path that takes the shallow coire to the NW, but I knew the other path, though steep and loose, is easy enough if I decided to back off.
Once at the foot of the boulders, I elected to follow the path to the second terrace, but could not find any decent rock to start on. Maybe a little higher? And so it went - Every time I went higher, looking for a decent place to start, I was faced with loose piles of choss and vegetation. I suspect there may be cleaner rock around to the SE side, but that has much greater consequences in the case of a slip. Eventually I made the top, and the cairn memorial to a member of Falkirk Mountaineering Club. I peered over the edge to see if I could spot a decent route, but simply put, I couldn't. I am sure there may be a safe-ish route, but I don't think it's a coincidence that there is little in the way of a route description anywhere, as it is a pile of teetering blocks waiting to fall in my opinion.
I rested a minute at the summit a little further on, slightly miffed at my cowardice but knowing that I had made the right decision, when I was joined by the chap from Vorlich who concurred on the scrambling decision, and Bill, (the chap I had met at the start of the day) who had ascended my planned descent route from his camp. We decided to wander down together, and had a lovely chat about mutual folks we knew from our days in the Carronbridge Hotel and further afield in the hills. Folks of Bill's advanced years (76) who are still on the hills always inspire me to keep going. Well done to him!
I was so glad of the bike for the final few kilometres of the descent, and even more glad of the cold beer in the garden when I got home after the unusually short drive. A great day's recce, and a very satisfying route.
Last week was spent walking in the Northern and Western section of the Cairngorms, basing ourselves in Glen Feshie. The weather was very warm indeed, and on one day we even set off at 05:30am in order to be up and down our objective before it got too hot. Even then it was 20c on the summit! Not a problem we often have in the UK, let alone the highest area of upland in the country.
What was noticeable was the lack of wildlife, and I can only surmise that it must have been keeping in the shade....that is except for black flies. They had a field day in the light winds, and our heads resembled 'Pig Pen' from Schultz's Charlie Brown cartoons!
Still, I am not moaning. Off to Rum this weekend coming, so hoping for good conditions to continue.
A splendid week on a 'Luxury Glencoe and Highland Perthshire' trip. Stayed at the Fortingall Hotel and Glencoe House. My word, not my normal haunts, but most pleasant!
After a week of cycling around Skye and the Inner Hebrides in good conditions, the weather couldn't possibly hold....could it? Well, yes it did. Gordon and me had our next instalment in the final few munros of his campaign, and we had wisely booked Angus the Mullardoch boat man for a return trip up the loch.
The morning was simply beautiful. Still, warm and fragrant with the gorse in bloom in earnest. We made the drive along to the Mullardoch dam from Cannich, and joined a boat full of folks who were being dropped off at various points around the loch. It was idyllic to be whizzing across the millpond-like surface, knowing all the effort it was saving, with the mountains all around, still sporting some fair old snow patches.
We were aiming for An Socach and An Riabhachan, and Angus dropped us and a couple of others just past the narrowing of the loch, so we made a rising traverse onto An Socach's SE ridge. We noticed quite quickly that there were ticks on our clothes as we passed through the nascent bracken, and I mentioned it to a few of the folk I saw in shorts. Watch out!
It was incredibly hot work ascending, with my thermometer reading never less than 24c, and up to 30 c in the coire out of the breeze! There was also the largets hatching of mayfly that I have ever seen, and they plagued us almost to the top. Tickly but benign little beasties. We played leap frog with a chap who kept resting in the heat, and had a good chat with him on the first summit. He was tired, but planning all four munros. We aimed to descend after the second one, and even that one Gordon wasn't sure if he had not done it before, but we wanted to be safe, not sorry, so bagged it.
The steep grassy descent into the Gairbh Coire would have been very tricky if wet, but it was as dry as a stick, so we made steady progress down to the burn, and then picked up a very rough track back down to the stalker's building at the loch side, where Angus was waiting for us. It was great relief to get on the water and get a breeze in our face, let alone the ease of getting back to the dam.
We flew around the route in a very respectable 6hrs, but it's fair to say the heat took its toll. Not many munros left now Gordon...... :)
OK, it's not mountaineering or even hill walking, but I had a great time last week on this job. The pics speak for themselves.
Monday and Tuesday I was assisting Gordon on some of his last few munros as he comes to the end of his campaign. We had fantastic conditions Monday on lonely Sgurr Mor, and even had a relatively dry tramp out into Glen Kingie and a trouble-free crossing of the burn - Most unusual!
Tuesday was 'Conditions Normal' for Scotland in April, with gusting wind, rain, sleet and hail. Luckily we only had one of the group known as the Rough Bounds, so made a hit-and-run assault before it really turned nasty.
These hills are never easy, and require a lot of effort to get in and out of, not least the interminable Loch Arkaig road!
Good luck on your last few Gordon, and see you at Cannich soon.....