Monday, 21 February 2011

Scotland February 2011

Back home again after another trip to Scotland. This time I went with a Dublin climber I had climbed once with in Kerry in December. I traveled to Scotland in a novel fashion this time as I flew into Gatwick Airport London and caught the Caledonian Sleeper train to Fort William. It is a wonderful way to travel. Being greeted by the steward and shown to my cabin berth, it all smacked of more elegant travel in times gone by. Having bought myself a few brews in the station I settled down to read and listened to music alone in the cabin. By ten thirty pm I was ready to sleep and I turned in and was soon lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking on the carriage, happily oblivious to the English countryside rolling by outside. My wake up call was at eight the following morning. This was accompanied by a cup of coffee and some shortbread (what else in Scotland). Opening the window blind and seeing the wonderful wilderness and mountains of Scotland roll by and knowing that you are nearing your final destination well rested and refreshed was a great feeling.

Friday: Feb 11th
I met Niall Currid at the train station and as it was now 10am I suggested Ledge route on Ben Nevis as a good warmer up outing. After a quick cup of coffee we set off in to Glen Nevis and started from the youth hostel at 11am. There is a fine stepped path up side of Meall an t-Suidhe and height is quickly gained until you arrive at the half way loch. From here the path traverses the lower slopes of Carn Dearg and you enter the valley between Carn Mor dearg and the northern face of Ben Nevis. The first thing that strikes you is the imposing mass of the cliffs of Carn Dearg. If anything persuades you the the Ben is a bit special then this is it. The day wasn't too bad. There was a blustery breeze that promised buffeting winds on high and the cloud was high and covering only the top 200mtrs or so. We made fine time and arrived at the CIC hut at 12.30pm. As I had never done Ledge Route before and it is described in the guide book as the finest grade two climb on the mountain I was really looking forward to it.

We headed up towards Number Five Gully from where the route starts. There was a lot of avalanche debris strewn across the slope guarding the entrance to the gully. Oftentimes this can be soft and awkward to climb but today it was firm and progress was relatively easy. The start of the gully is quite wide but where it narrows there is a wide shelf leading upwards to the right. We followed this and as there were footprints continuing straight on and others going up a gully to the left I opted for us to follow straight on. The shelf petered out and so did the steps but there appeared to be an exit up to the left up a steep snow slope and a rocky spur continuation. This proved to be a bit of a mistake as when I climbed up a little bit onto the rock it was horribly rotten and steeper than first appeared. I got back down with some difficulty and we retreated back to the shelf and up the gully. This led to easy ground to the right where more rocky ground forms a definite ridge which sweeps up through impressive scenery to the summit of Carn Dearg.

We were by now up in the mist and the promised strong winds were indeed in evidence. Visibility was poor but despite this and the lateness of the hour we agreed to continue to the summit of Ben Nevis. So we skirted the cliffs edge the whole way to the summit in the ever worsening visibility. When we reached the summit we met a Swedish pair who had come up Zero gully and an English pair that had climbed .5 Gully. Both of these climbs are Grade5 and they deemed the conditions very good. We stopped for a bite to eat, ( I was to learn that food was very important to Niall and it wasn't unusual for him to have two dinners in one evening), and we all set off together . The English boys were following a bearing and the rest of us followed. We soon emerged under the cloud and we descended the Red Burn almost to the tourist track and then followed the track back to the car. We arrived back at 18.30pm and were reasonably satisfied with a good workout. I must confess that I had expected more from Ledge Route. It is a very straightforward route for GradeII and at no stage does it present any difficulties. Still we were happy and we had a bite to eat in Fort William, did a bit of shopping and headed for a hostel in Kinlochleven which was to be our base for a few nights.

Saturday: Feb 12th.
After some discussion and being mindful of the high avalanche risk I suggested that we do the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe. This is a lovely outing on an always engaging ridge that stretches for three miles between Am Bodach and Scorr nam Fiannaidh. Access is via the wonderful pass of Glencoe with its wonderful three sisters and long valleys sweeping up to Bideam nam Bian on one side and of course the ground sweeping up to the Aonach Eagach ridge on the other. After a good breakfast we headed to the pass and we were leaving the car at 9am. The climb starts immediately and it continues unrelentingly until you reach the summit of Am Bodach. When we passed the 750mtr mark there was plenty of fresh snow lying and this only got deeper as we neared the summit. The day was really quite good with little wind and only patchy cloud that promised that views could be enjoyed through the day. There was evidence that others were gone ahead of us and we followed their footprints until we reached the first of the difficulties.
Along the Aonach Eagach Ridge

Here we caught the group of five as they were in the middle of descending the forty or so meters that is called the Chancellor. They already had a rope rigged and kindly offered that we could use it. This we did, using it as a handrail and so we were over the first step quickly. Their generosity had a bonus for them as well as we were now the first to cross the ridge and our footprints were the ones that could now be followed and therefore be used to see where the steps etc were. The ridge continues in a series of narrow arrets and pinnacles with some awkward down climbs and short gullies and rocky bluffs. Always reamed by gullies the going is constantly interesting and proved a much more engaging day out. There was one section where Niall went down ahead of me. I had him on belay and he decided that the best way was accross an awkward little traverse followed by a short downclimb to easier ground. This he did but when I followed the exposure and some of the moves proved quite unnerving for me. A self belay from rock higher up would have been a better option for me. Still I succeeded and we continued along. We eventually arrived at the summit of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh with all difficulties behind us. The normal descent route is to head towards the Pap of Glencoe and down to the road between the village and the Clacaig Inn. This would have meant a six mile road walk back to the car. We headed instead on a direct line from the summit to the pass below and eventually arrived at the road just three miles from the car. We tried hitching and lo and behold before we had walked 400mtrs we got a drive to the car. Result!!! We were back at the car at 16.30 which meant that we had completed the route in about 7hours 15minutes. Pretty good going. Back to the Clacaig where Niall had a meal and back to the hostel where we later cooked another dinner of pasta. A good day out.

Sunday: Feb 13th.
The poor weather forecast for the area for Sunday did indeed materialize. Heavy rain was the order of the morning and a leisurely day was decided upon. A late breakfast and a lazy morning eventually got the better of me and I decided to venture out anyway. I went for a hike up another Am Bodach in the Mamores. This meant that there was no driving involved as the route started right from the village. Niall opted to stay and watch Ireland V France in rugby but did drive me up to Mamore lodge which took 200mtrs off the climb. By the time I took off the weather was improving and it soon dried up altogether. The snow was lying at about 500mtrs and I was soon trudging up fresh soft snow. At around 750mtrs I came to some old scoured snowfields that required the axe to come out and kicking steps. I soon entered the cloud and whiteout conditions again prevailed. Up over 900mtrs the ground became more serious and cliffs and drifts and cornices were the order of the day. As I didn't really want to have a serious outing I turned and retreated to below the cloud. At the scoured snowfields I found a good spot to do some axe arrest practice and I was soon throwing myself head first down the slope amongst other things. All good fun and I felt I had done something productive with the day. An easy walk back to the hostel followed by a few tinnies watching the match ended an enjoyable day.

Monday: Feb 14th
This was the day I had been waiting for. The plan today was to climb the North East Buttress on Ben Nevis. This is an awesome looking route and probably the best GradeIV on the mountain. When you are walking towards the CIC hut the ridge is in profile and is perhaps the most dominant feature in sight. The forecast was fair with most importantly light winds. There was however a lot of fresh snow blanketing everywhere after the previous day. Avalanche was a distinct possibility but hey ho, sometimes you have to go for it. We left the car at 8am and set off at a fast pace. We were overtaking other parties and reached the hut in good time. Thereafter the going became tougher as we had to break trail towards the route through deep snow. We ploughed on and rounded the base of the buttress and headed for the ramp that takes you to the first platform and the start of the route proper. We cut up to the right and enjoyed nice gradeII ground to the ramp and then again waded up steep snow to the platform. Half way to the platform I suffered a nasty attack of the hot aches which almost made me sick and I had to sit down for a few minutes.

There is a good block belay at the start of the first pitch which Niall offered to lead. Rounding an exposed ledge he headed up a leftward slanting gully into a steep awkward corner. Protection was sparse and watching him at the vertical top of the corner there appeared to be little ice also. Still he made short work of it and shortly thereafter he had a belay set up and called me on. I followed easily, secure on the rope and soon reached the corner. Here I came face to face with stiff grade four climbing and set off up. All was going well until I was literally making the final move over the top when as I was placing one axe the other broke loose and I fell back a little. Shit and bollocks I hate falling even when I'm seconding. Still I had to get up and I set too again at huffed and puffed to the belay. This hadn't done my confidence any good so Niall led the second pitch too. This heads up straight forward ground and then traverses left under steep rock and then up steep snow and ice to another belay at almost a full 60mtr rope length. He took some time on this pitch and because he had rounded a corner we couldn't hear each other at all so communication confusion was the norm. Eventually after many rope pulls I took the chance that I was on belay and set off up. Sure enough the rope stayed tight and I continued up. Niall had to dig out a few ice screw placements and the traverse was on an exposed icy snow ledge. Rounding the rock I soon reached him where the belay was a couple of screws.

Easier ground continued up to what appeared from below a good spike belay, so I said I would continue up and throw a sling around it and bring him up. The rock proved to be no good so I continued on for approx 50 mtrs from the belay to a little rockface where I realized that I had no hardward with me to set up a proper belay. There was the possibility of a thread belay but I was unable to get the sling through. I improvised and managed to wedge the pick of each axe into either side of a split rock and belayed from that. Not textbook but good enough in the circumstances. Niall soon arrived and used hexes to reset the belay and he set off up. Yet again a full rope length was used and rope pulls were required. A lot of time was wasted by this lack of communication and perhaps a couple of walkie talkies would be a good idea. I followed on up to the belay in an overhanging corner. The exit from here wasn't immediately obvious and this was my lead. I had a look at the left hand side where a thin ice smear coupled with an unbalancing step seemed to offer a possibility. I managed to get a good axe in but the step up proved too awkward so I came back down. I tried the right hand side and a good axe and a strong pull up and I was over and on my way. Soon another tricky step up and over a smooth rock presented itself. I was able to protect it and a bit of a hopeful pull on an iffy axe and some undignified wallowing and I was over. Easy but exposed ground led to a belay at a rock nose. I brought Niall to up and we tried to figure out how to proceed from here.
Starting pitch five heading for the Mantrap

We had arrived at the Mantrap. The day was by now getting late and it was apparent that we would be doing well to be on the summit before dark. The looked just about possible to climb with sloping edges of rock but no axe placements. Niall gave it a go and was about six feet up when he fell on top of me, but a couple of crampon cuts on my hard shell trousers the only damage. A little down to the right and he managed to get good axe placements and he was over. Up steep snow and the forty foot corner soon follows. He managed to protect this with screws and got over with no problems. He is a fine strong climber. Now it was my turn. I dropped down a little and managed to get some purchase with the axes. However my short frame meant I was finding it too much to reach over the rock edge and I had to try to get some purchase with my crampons on the rock face. It was with great relief that I managed to get a little grip and I got an axe in higher up. Another axe followed and then my feet went and I lost grip on the axes and I slid back down with the axes about two feet above my reach. FUCK. I had to pull myself up on the lanyard and it took two more exhausting efforts to surmount the problem. The forty foot corner looked almost too hard to my tired self but I managed to get up and over without further problems.

I led on up easy ground to what in the gathering dark I hoped was the last obstacle, a short rocky outcrop with an exit on a slanting ramp to the left. This I left to Niall and he made short work of it and ran out some rope and brought me up and over. We were now on the summit ridge but the only problem was that it was all but dark. I went ahead, feeling my way with the axes and keeping the vague shadow of the abyss on the right. Sometimes there were dips in the snow which made one doubt that all was well but tentative feeling found more snow and progress continued. I was delighted to eventually see the summit shelter appear ahead and we gratefully stopped here for something to eat. It was 7pm. After a short rest there was nothing for it but to trust in the compass and we headed down using the bearings supplies on the Harvey map. Step after step we continued and we were delighted to emerge from the clouds to find we were exactly in the right place. The descent was long and we arrived at the cat at 22.20 a full fourteen hours after we started.
Happy to finally reach the summit

Tuesday: Feb 15th
After the exertions of the previous day we had a lazy morning and headed up Sgurr a Mhaim to around 750mtrs in search of deep snow to make snow bollards and axe belays ect. It was a bit of an anticlimax after the previous day but that was only to be expected. That ended the climbing for this trip. The North East Buttress is I think about the limit of my ability but as I sit here I am itching to give it another go. An aside is that I lost my camera on the buttress so I have a dearth of pictures.