Thursday, 30 December 2010

Last climb of the year (posted by James)


A thawing snow-pack in Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe



Despite the rapid thaw, and despite losing my wrist-watch and not waking until 10am, I ended up in Coire nan Lochan today to see if anything was climbable. It was my last chance to climb in 2010, so I wanted to see what I could do.


It was a depressing walk-in today for sure. The last time I'd been there, thick snow and extensive ice had covered the entire corrie down to the road. Today however, muddy slopes, rapidly melting ice-falls and a snow-line at about 800m. The snow is melting and slushy at all levels now, and all the buttresses are fairly black.


So I headed towards NC Gully, one of the great chasms dividing the cliffs of Stob Coire nan Lochan. In mid to late season it is a continuously easy angled snow-slope, but in today's conditions it was far more fun.


An atmospheric NC Gully


There were three nice mixed steps in the gully, all quite lean with the worst ice imaginable. The snow slopes under each step were made from the type of snow that just doesn't take a "bite" from crampons at all, so getting to the top of these rocky steps was quite fun.


The cornice at the top wasn't very big, but was so loose that I had to more or less vertically swim upwards through it. Thankfully it was smaller than the cornice over SC Gully, otherwise I'd not have topped out!


The top mixed step


So although conditions today were awful, the climb was far more worthwhile than it would have been in fatter conditions. There were also climbers on Raeburn's Route, Boomerang Gully, Dorsal Arete and Broad Gully today.


So, my last climb of 2010. It has certainly been a brilliant year! Both Alex and I have had countless memorable days climbing, particularly during the exceptional winter weather that has defined both the start and end of 2010. Between us we've climbed about 50 winter routes in 2010, and I did a fair number of the classic Scottish ridges this summer.


Fingers crossed for 2011 to bring even more fun and adventure!


A very happy new year from Alex and I, and keep safe on the hills in 2011.

Monday, 20 December 2010

For those of you who know the Clachaig (posted by James)


Sgurr nam Fiannaidh and Clachaig Gully glowing in the moonlight



A couple of photos of interest for those of you who know Glencoe's mad and wonderful Clachaig Inn.


Half a foot of snow a few days ago has caused all sorts of chaos, but as always it has positives!


I know it sounds clichéd, but the snow really has transformed the Clachaig into a picture-postcard winter wonderland. Clear skies and a bright moon have made for moonlit hillsides glowing through the dark, and it has been truly magical to walk around at night and take it all in.


The atmosphere inside the pub can be simply magical at this time of year - the roaring fire and candles, and tired winter climbers sharing stories, laughter and warmth.


Alex and I are off to England for Christmas until the 27th, but we'll be back in time for the cheerful mayhem and madness of a Scottish Hogmanay.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

An amazing two months (posted by James)


A stunning morning on Ledge Route, Ben Nevis


It looks like the cold is to return tomorrow after the massive thaw of the last few days, so now is a good time to look back on what has been a superb start to the winter.


Until this year, 'early season' to me has meant strong winds, deep powder snow, little or no ice, damp walk-ins and more often that not disappointment when trying to climb.


Alpenglow on the Aonach Eagach, Glencoe


This year has been an exception - I've climbed 10 winter routes already, and nearly all of them in good conditions. And I'm not the only one by any means. The winter climbing community of Glencoe and Lochaber have had a field-day, with routes being climbed that aren't usually done until mid-season, and some which are rarely in condition at all. An Steall Ban in Glen Nevis, rarely in condition at all, has seen at least 2 ascents, and the great ice falls of Aonach Dubh and the Aonach Eagach have been climbed on several occasions.


Winter perfection on Stob Coire nam Beith, Glencoe


And there have been some impressive first-ascents too. I was lucky enough to witness Donald King and Andy Nelson doing the first ascent of Satyr (IX,9) in Coire nan Lochan, and it was certainly something to behold.


Exposed early-season climbing on Dorsal Arete, Glencoe


The weather has been stunning for much of the time, with clear skies and bright sunshine. But with it came deep, intense cold. On Ben Nevis 2 weeks ago I experienced brutal cold the like of which I'd never seen before, leaving me with a frost-nipped finger and sore skin for days.


Early season ice in North Gully, Ben Nevis


Unfortunately the exceptional cold and heavy snow also created some very dangerous conditions as well as I unfortunately discovered in Coire nan Lochan a week ago. I was caught in a small avalanche, and had a very lucky escape indeed.


It's an experience I'm actually glad I had, although it was deeply unpleasant and very frightening. It's good to be reminded how very dangerous this game we play is.


So all in all, a remarkable start to the season. Fingers crossed for more of the same!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Back in the game (posted by James)


A breathtaking view from the summit of the Ben

Number 2 Gully, Ben Nevis.


Since my encounter with a small avalanche in Coire nan Lochan a few days ago, I have deliberately kept my distance from the hills. For the first time in over a year and a half, I didn't want anything to do with them.


Thankfully though a bit of distance has done me the world of good, and I found myself really looking forward to visiting the Ben this morning.


There has been a lot of snow melt in the last few days in Lochaber, but what remains is firming up very nicely indeed. With this in mind I headed towards Number 2 Gully.


In a way I think it's a great shame that some of the Nevis gullies have been named so unimaginatively. Minus 3 to plus 5. Number 2 Gully is one of the most atmospheric climbs I know - a narrow cleft forming a striking line up the side of the North face, often filled with gigantic and bizarre icicles.


The amazing ice formations at the entrance to Number 2 Gully


We should stop and think more often about these things. Number 2 Gully could easily be straight out of a fantasy novel if you just allow yourself to look past the guidebook description and the grade.


Conditions were grand in the gully - lots of hard snow-ice, and a very small manageable cornice. Such a contrast to the huge overhanging monster of a cornice that greeted Alex and I the last time we climbed Number 2, in May this year.


A small and easy cornice


Today was really made for me by the temperature inversion that is sitting over the west Highlands right now. I topped out of the gully to see the most beautiful misty haze covering my stomping ground - Glencoe, Glen Etive, Rannoch Moor, Glen Orchy….


I couldn't have asked for anything more to get me back into the swing of things after a brief confidence crisis. I suppose any such accident or near miss like an avalanche can make you question things, but I'm glad that I've got down from the Ben today excited for the rest of the winter and looking forward to what the new year will bring.


Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A near miss and a fright in Coire nan Lochan (posted by James)


I had a bit of a fright today in Coire nan Lochan, one of those days that leaves you slightly shaken and makes you reflect on how easy it is for things to go wrong.


We've had a large dump of fresh snow a couple of days ago in Glencoe, which is now lying on top of the semi-consolidated old snowpack that has been there since early October. Until some freeze-thaw, this is always a dangerous situation.


A climber on Central Buttress (VII,7)??


With this in mind, I had no plans to do any climbing today so I headed up to do the West ridge of Stob Coire nan Lochan, simply to be up on the tops on another stunning sunny day.


I was paying constant attention to avalanche hazard all the time, as is essential in these snow conditions. None the less, on my way down the West ridge I was caught out, and had a very near miss.


The West ridge of Stob Coire nan Lochan


An area of windslab, not very large, broke away beneath my feet and set me sliding down the slope. An ice axe arrest was impossible due to the terrain, and after a few metres I was brought to a nasty halt. My left leg got caught between two boulders and stopped me with a jolt, as the rest of my body's momentum tried to carry me forward.


For a brief moment I feared broken bones, but when I got myself up again it was very painful but everything seemed in one piece. Ultimately I was very lucky, as if I hadn't been stopped so suddenly I would have continued on the avalanche all the way into Coire nan Beith, and in all likelihood to a sticky ending.



Serious snow on Ben Nevis


So a word of warning. Conditions on some slopes are now very hazardous. The extreme cold of the last two weeks has formed a layer of hoar frost (in some places) on the old snowpack, making a line of serious weakness between this and the new dump of snow. Even on the lowest slopes, the new powder hides extensive horizontal ice flows which you don't know are there until you are already sliding.


Until we have a thaw and re-freeze, serious care is needed. I was taking every caution today, and still nearly had a serious accident.


Remember, it only takes the smallest of slips to do serious harm. Be safe folks.


Sunday, 5 December 2010

A change of plans, but a stunning day on Ben Nevis (posted by James)

An Alpine ambience on Ledge Route

A month into Scotland's period of cold weather, and still it marches on. I had one of those days today on the Ben which is so stunning that you simply don't believe you'll get a day so nice again…but I've said that a lot recently, and have been wrong every time.

I was heading up to do Number 2 Gully today, the great chasm which divides Tower Ridge from The Comb. But there had been quite a lot of fresh snow overnight, and it was clear from the approach that avalanche risk has risen considerably on certain slopes. Going near any of the easier gullies would have been a mistake, so I changed direction and waded my way up Ledge Route instead.

The summit of the Ben

In the end it was actually a blessing - being in the shade of the gullies would have been a waste of what turned into a staggeringly beautiful sunny day. Ledge Route was a truly sublime place to be today. Entertaining straightforward climbing along the crest of one of the great ridges of the North Face. But it was exhausting work - I had to break trail through about 12 inches of fresh snow, all the way from the base of Number 5 Gully all the way to the plateau.

Such a contrast from the brutal cold we experienced on Raeburn's Easy Route a few days ago! It felt like a day in the Alps - a sky so blue it is almost purple, and a sun so bright that you can feel it starting to burn your face.

The ice flows near the CIC hut

It can vary so much, on Ben Nevis. Days like today seem like a million years away from the ones when it all starts to go wrong, and when the Ben can be a very, very intimidating place.

A word of caution - avalanche risk has gone up in the easier gullies, due to the new dump of snow on the old consolidated snowpack. The new snow is also hiding very extensive ice flows on easier ground on the approaches, especially into Coire na Ciste. If you are planning on ice routes, sharpen your axes! The ice is extremely brittle just now, but will take sharpened picks.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A trip to Ben Nevis







Yet another breathtakingly clear, blue-sky day in the Highlands. James and I teamed up with friends Isi and Lorraine for an assault on climbs in Coire na Ciste, Ben Nevis. Our original plan was to climb Garadh Gully, currently sporting two short pitches of steep ice, then continue to Raeburn's Easy Route or one of the other climbs in that area. However, by the time we arrived at Garadh's Gully, we saw five people on the route so decided to leave it for another day. We climbed up towards the No.2 Gully area.

We talked about Raeburn's Easy Route, a Grade II snow and ice climb heading out of the left wall of No.2 Gully. On the one hand, it looked loaded with snow; but on the other hand, the snow in the bottom of No.2 Gully on the approach was excellent. In the end, Isi and Lorraine decided to go up No.2, while James and I opted for Raeburn's (we have already done No.2).

All went well to begin with. The ice steps were short and amenable, although the ice was so cold and brittle that even with razor-sharp B rated picks, it was shattering and fracturing quite badly on impact.

The higher we climbed, the worse the snow became. I put in an ice screw belay below the steepest part of the route while we assessed our chances. By this point, the snow had become a thin icy crust on top of bottomless cruddy powder--most steps were collapsing under our weight. Dangerous conditions to be considering an exposed traverse on snow, which we expected to see above the steep scoop.

In the end it was an easy decision: safety won over ambition to climb the route. Down we went to the CIC hut, very cold indeed by this point. I don't recall ever having felt so cold in my life. Despite wearing a duvet jacket, balaclava, Dachstein mitts, two pairs of socks and huge mountaineering boots, I lost feeling in my fingers, toes and ears for quite a long time. As someone who usually runs warm on the mountain, even in temperatures well below freezing, I have no idea how cold it must have been! James suffered badly from the hot aches.

We met up with Isi and Lorraine at the car; they had found far better conditions in No.2 Gully, and reported it to be in fairly easy nick. Despite our failed climb, it was a good day out with beautiful views.

Photos from today

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

North Gully solo, Ben Nevis (posted by James)


The crux of North Gully, steep ice.


North Gully (Grade II), Creag Coire na Ciste.


What a start to the winter! It's almost too good to be true… November has to me felt more like January.


I was looking for Grade II solo options on Ben Nevis today. North Gully of Creag Coire na Ciste is quite short, but forms a nice curving line which is a reliable route early in the season.



North Gully


Walking into Coire na Ciste, I was astonished at the sheer amount of ice for November. Everywhere you look there are icefalls forming - the CIC Cascades, Waterfall Gully, The Curtain, Gemini…all forming fast.


I must have experienced almost every type of snow in Coire na Ciste today, from hard nevé to windslab, but overall things are looking good. Most of the instabilities look obvious and are avoidable.


The summit of Ben Nevis


The first section of North Gully is steep for a Grade II. About a third of the way up, I came across a steep pitch of ice, probably nudging Grade III. Unfortunately the ice was quite brittle, and when I was nearly at the top of the icefall, at the crucial moment my left axe broke through the ice and I was covered with a jet of water. A couple of slightly alarming moves and pull-ups on my right axe and I onto less steep snow.


Ben Nevis today - doesn't get much better than this.


The steep exit onto the plateau, pulling over the lip of the cliffs into crisp freezing sunshine….it never fails to be an amazing experience. Emerging into the bright, "real" world, after the cold and shadows of the north face.


The summit of the Ben was an unusually magical place today. The observatory ruins were coated by a thick crust of rime ice, making them look more like igloos. With bright sunshine, intense cold and utter silence, it is arguably my most memorable summiting of the Ben.


The forecast is for the cold to continue....

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Hourglass Gully, Bidean nam Bian (posted by James)

Deep cold on the cliffs of Bidean nam Bian


Not that I needed convincing, but yesterday proved to me without a shadow of doubt that I am either slightly mad, or just single-minded beyond belief.


I'd been on South Uist since tuesday visiting a friend, and the ferry didn't get me back to Oban until 6am Friday morning, so I wasn't back to Glencoe until 7am.


I hadn't slept on the ferry at all…a band of Gaelic-singing, accordian-playing Uist natives had kept me awake! But when I got back to Glencoe - a clear, freezing sky, and the promise of consolidated snow on the highest summits.



Only November?? Astonishing winter beauty on Stob Coire nam Beith.


So I got back to the Bothy, after 7 hours on a ferry overnight with no sleep, packed my bag, and set off towards my favourite of all places, Bidean nam Bian's north cliffs.


Hourglass Gully is possibly the steepest Grade I route I know, and forms a striking line up the West summit of Bidean. As it happens there had been some fresh snow, a lot of which had been deposited in the gully, so it was actually quite unstable.


Hourglass Gully (slightly right of centre), in spring 2009



There is a quite amazing cave half way up Hourglass Gully at the moment, where the snow has drifted against the top of a chock-stone. Huge icicles hang down into the cave, and there is an other-worldly feel to the place.


The summit ridges of Bidean are utterly spectacular now. Deep powder snow covering every rock, rime ice six inches thick sticking out horizontally from the cliffs. Small tornados of spindrift weave their way across the slopes. This is what I live for!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Stunning conditions on Stob Coire nam Beith







The only way to describe today's weather and conditions is 'absolutely stunning'! Back from a weekend down South with my girlfriend, I found I had another day off before work tomorrow. The forecast was good and a hard freeze overnight convinced me that the snow gullies would be worth looking at.

Once again I decided to use the traditional equipment. The more I use this kit, the more I grow to like it, and there is something deeply satisfying about step-cutting. It gives interest and challenge back to the task of climbing snow gullies--a style of route whose enjoyment has been destroyed by specialist modern equipment.

The snow was good and firm from about 500m. I observed weeps of ice forming on the walls, some of them surprisingly large; rime wasn't really present until about 950m however. I strolled over the fields of pristine neve in my nailed boots. The last time I was up there, I had been floundering in knee-deep powder and making very slow process.

Once in the upper coire, I debated what to climb. Great Gully is always a good choice in stable conditions, but I'd done it several times before. The battlements and ridges of Stob Coire nam Beith caught my eye: plenty of options there, even if there's nothing in the guidebook between Bidean West Peak and the actual North Face of Stob Coire nam Beith. I wandered in that direction.

An obvious gully presented itself as an appealing option. It lies directly right of a small but impressive tower, which is itself right of the large couloir whose tributary is Hourglass Gully. Difficult to explain unless you know the area, but it's perhaps sufficient to say that there are many large Grade I gullies in the area without names, and I simply chose the most appealing one.

Now I set to work cutting steps. This is a process I hugely enjoy, for its power and rhythm, and the necessity for economy of energy. I zig-zagged across the firm snow, slicing steps in the icy crust. Conditions underfoot were almost perfect, certainly not what you'd expect for late November! I observed the occasional small patch of windslab, but nothing to cause any alarm.

The exit of the gully proved to be very steep indeed, and guarded by a drooping cornice. I now cut steps with greater care as the angle steepened. Steps had to be incut sufficiently to use as handholds. I would estimate the exit slope to be 50 degrees or steeper, and provided excellent practice in steeper cutting with the yard-long axe. Finally I came up against the cornice, which was about as tall as me and slightly overhanging. After cutting good bucket-steps to stand in, I set to work digging my tunnel!

The long axe is quite simply the BEST tool for digging through a cornice. I've dug cornices before with my modern Alp Wings, and they simply are not as capable, there's no two ways of putting it. With a long axe you can put momentum and weight behind your swing, and carve out huge lumps of ice with the adze; you can thrust the shaft deeply into the snowpack to gain purchase; you can cut steps high above your position and cut handholds beyond the lip of the cornice to help you surmount it. The experience was far easier and less stressful than it usually is when wearing crampons and carrying ice tools.

After hauling on the handholds cut in the plateau above, and hooking my leg over one side of the tunnel, I succeeded in defeating the cornice--and was rewarded with the usual stunning view over the loch to Ardgour.

I summited Stob Coire nam Beith and made my way down leisurely, hardly having to cut a step thanks to the well-used track down the West Ridge. Another great day out with the traditional equipment, and given the hard freeze forecast for the next few days I think conditions can only improve in the long run.

Photos may be found here.

Endnote

Thanks to my friend Lauren for pointing out a great new source of climbing and mountaineering equipment, Elite Mountain Supplies. This webshop stocks everything you could wish for in terms of winter mountaineering equipment, and at a substantial discount for BMC / MCofS members. Worth a look if you need to replace something this winter!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A day of two winter routes in Coire nan Lochan (posted by James)


Exposed climbing on Dorsal Arete (II)


I spend the entire summer waiting for winter's return, so when it arrives I'm always determined to make the most of it. So despite being tired having been on the hill for the last 2 days, I decided to head to Coire nan Lochan to see if the snow had consolidated a bit more.


As I walked into the corrie the snow was feeling much more firm than the last time I'd been there. However there was mainly just a thick crust of hard snow on top of a far softer layer underneath, so the going was still quite hard.


With this in mind I abandoned ideas of the gullies, so I headed towards old favourite Dorsal Arete as my back up option. I decided to solo "the fin" today, the spectacularly exposed crux of the route, which has some moves fairly high end for a Grade II. It's the most exposed climbing I'd be willing to solo, but it's very exciting and highly enjoyable - despite being short Dorsal Arete really is superb.


A climber struggling with extremely lean conditions on Scabbard Chimney (V,6)


Whilst descending Broad Gully I found the snow far more promising than it had been lower down. With this in mind, and as it was only 11am, I decided to go for another route.


I headed towards Boomerang Gully, the giant Grade II snow couloir which curves up to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan.


Where the gully bends there is a steep rocky section, which either banks out or forms an ice pitch in late season. Today however it was extremely lean, with a bit of snow and melting ice on the rocks. I had a very careful look at it and decided it was perfectly climbable with care, although it was definitely pushing the top of the Grade II the route gets.


The very lean crux of Boomerang Gully (II)


The rest of the route was well banked out with snow, and is straightforward to the summit.


Plenty of others in the corrie today - two teams at least on a VERY thin Scabbard Chimney, others on Dorsal Arete, more heading towards the Crest Route/Thompsons Route area.


Now I'm very tired! Three winter routes in the last two days…I'm having a brilliant start to the season.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Ledge Route, Ben Nevis (posted by James)


Two climbers about to top out on the plateau from Ledge Route


"It's only November!!" - the phrase I have to keep saying to myself in my head. I'm finding myself thinking of it as mid-season already, when it wouldn't be unusual for there to be NO snow at this time of year.


Today, for the second day in a row, I did the long sweaty walk into the North face of Ben Nevis. It's been warm the last couple of days, and the freezing level has gone up to 1000m, so I wasn't too hopeful.



The stunning narrow crest of Ledge Route



But if there's one route on the Ben which is known for being reliable in early season, it is Ledge Route - to my knowledge one of only two 4* grade II winter climbs in Scotland. In my opinion it is deserving of it - a fine line which zig-zags it's way up the mighty Carn Dearg Buttress, with some hefty exposure on the crux of the route.



The Carn Mor Dearg Arete and the North East Buttress


The short passage across Number 5 Gully was distinctly dangerous. The warm temperatures were sending rocks, lumps of ice larger than my head, and broken icicles shooting down the gully with alarming frequency. The last time I'd seen the like was climbing in the Swiss Alps.


The initial ramp to gain the ridge was banked out with deep, but wet snow. Conditions very gradually improved with height, and I really enjoyed the crossing of the narrow crest of the route which is stunningly exposed. A few of the moves were made more interesting than perhaps they should have been due to the lack of solid snow or ice for crampon placements.



The No.4 Gully cornice


There was only one other pair of climbers on Ledge Route today, but plenty elsewhere. I saw teams heading towards the area of the NE Buttress, Creag Coire na Ciste, The Comb, and elsewhere.


The forecast for next week is something special! "Exceptionally cold" is the phrase used. With the large amount of snow left on The Ben, Bidean nam Bian and The Aonachs, there should hopefully be lots of ice forming by next week.


I think we can safely say by now that the winter is getting off to a brilliant start. It wasn't anything like this at this time last year. Shall we all just let ourselves dream, just for a moment, that it will turn out an even better winter than the last one?….


James

Monday, 15 November 2010

Deep powder snow on Fiacaill Ridge (posted by James)



Fiacaill Ridge, Grade II


Fiacaill Ridge (Grade II), Cairngorm


A heavy dump of snow across the Highlands to coincide with the start of my month holiday….brilliant in some ways, but if only it had been a few days earlier!


For the time of year, it is heavy snow. Knowing that nearly every route within my grade in Glencoe would be a bad choice, I headed east to the Cairngorms to a well known "powder-day" route - Fiacaill Ridge.



A lone mountaineer making his way over the Cairngorm plateau



I was surprised at the sheer amount of powder for mid November. It wasn't like this at this time last year was it? However fit you are, it's tiring work, slogging through powder uphill.


As I reached the start of the climb the wind started, and I was treated to the most spectacular displays of spindrift tornados and icy Brocken Spectres I'd ever seen. Ski-goggles out! I was grateful for them, otherwise seeing anything would have been a nightmare….


There's a couple of awkward moves on Fiacaill Ridge, tight chimneys which were a bit stiff for the grade under the amount of powder I was dealing with. Every axe placement had to be thoroughly searched for and cleared of loose snow. All the more fun!



A bold skier peering over the edge of Coire an't Sneachda


The walk across the plateau towards Cairngorm was unusually spectacular, and a sheer dream from the perspective of someone who is a photographer before a climber. Spindrift veils and bright sunshine, and occasional cross-country skiers battling their way through the snow.


That's 3 winter climbs for me already, and it's only mid November. The season is off to a good start!

A climb of Bidean's N Ridge under challenging conditions







After considerable new snowfall in the mountains, I knew that a day of climbing would be a tough proposition--but the forecast for yesterday was excellent, so I packed my bag and headed up into the coire! My chosen destination was Bidean nam Bian, and I decided to conduct this climb using 19th-century style equipment (nailed boots, long ice axe, tweed jacket etc). It's a very different way of climbing and really opens your eyes to the challenges and choices faced by the pioneers.

On the way up into Bidean's coire I noted that considerable cloud still shrouded the summits, contrary to the expected conditions. The snowline was reached at around 600m--firm at first, then crusty, then as the snow grew deeper it finally gave way to knee-deep, exhausting powder. This powder (with occasional deeper drifts up to waist-high) continued without change into the floor of the coire, where I was hailed by two mountaineers making their way to the Church Door--they actually mistook me for my brother James!

My original intentions had been to ascend Great Gully (the huge couloir directly right of the Church Door) but I believed conditions would make this arduous, particularly given the fact that wind transportation of snow was already creating pockets of windslab in places, and I could see threatening cornices guarding the upper precipice. Instead, I climbed the steep slope left of the North Route, thus joining the N Ridge and ascending the mountain from this side.

This slope proved to be hard going. It was up to 40 degrees in steepness, and alternated between epic powder drifts and hard neve--the old scoured snow which had consolidated prior to the new snowfall. I couldn't tell what each footstep would be like until I made it. I ended up swimming part of it and cutting steps for the rest. The ridge itself was also pretty tough--corniced and swamped in powder, again except for the scoured areas which required step-cutting. I reached the summit in a whiteout and immediately began the descent of the West Ridge, once again breaking trail.

Surprisingly, most of the West Ridge proved to be well-scoured, and I ended up cutting steps a great deal of the time, although luckily sometimes the snow was soft enough to sink the heels in and so avoid having to cut. The descent of the snowfield into Coire nam Beith was under heavy snow. I could see avalanche debris towards the centre of the snowfield, and therefore kept close to the edge, although I don't think the risk was too high.

I got back home at four o'clock, an hour before my shift began, completely exhausted after a full day of hard work in the mountains! Definitely worth it though to see some astonishing early season conditions. In my two previous winters at the Clachaig, we didn't get this much snow until December.

Photos may be found here

Equipment notes

I chose to use largely 19th century / early 20th century style equipment for this ascent. I've used the tweed jacket for winter climbing before, and am well aware of its capabilities and limitations; it is superb in cold and snowy conditions, being warmer and more breathable than modern softshell. As an outer layer it keeps you far more comfortable than Gore-tex. Its main disadvantage is warm, wet conditions. Tweed is not waterproof--it is at its best in keeping out snow and spindrift.

This was my first outing with the Tricouni-nailed boots and long ice axe. Both performed even better than expected. Despite areas of hard snow I felt no need for crampons at any point; on slopes up to about 20 degrees I could just walk along without cutting steps, as the Tricounis act like miniature crampons themselves. Their grip on rock and turf is unmatched. The long axe is also a pleasure to climb with, and it has just the right weight and length to make cutting steps easy on this kind of ground.

On the way up into the coire I did bits and pieces of bouldering on iced-up rocks, and the performance of the boots standing on tiny edges has convinced me that I could easily climb harder mixed routes in these boots than I could wearing crampons (which I have always found cumbersome on rocky routes).